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Though not a perfect film, Syriana may be the most important fictional one you see this year. You can walk the line up to Brokeback Mountain, perhaps remembering a geisha or two, but Stephen Gaghan's directorial debut is the film that we should all be thinking about.

Definitely of the moment, and as confusing at points as the moment is, Syriana tries to sort out the miasma that is our foreign policy and how it relates to Big Oil. Even as it points fingers, though, the film also has a few pointing back at us. In a widely touted speech, an oilman played by Tim Blake Nelson revels in corruption because it is precisely that corruption that makes the American way of life possible. He may very well be right.

Based on true events, but hopefully distorted for propagandistic effect, Gaghan's cinematic rant feels almost as hopeless as it is angry. As simply as it can be put, we have less oil than we need. By "we," we mean the world. And should we not mean "the US?"

Wading through all this requires multiple points of view, and like one of Gaghan's earlier screenplays, Traffic, Syriana weaves several plotlines through each other. George Clooney stars as Bob Barnes, a CIA agent whose job it is to keep the terrorist network unstable. Depending on your political partisanship, that job may also entail keeping democracy out of the Middle East in favor of rulers that favor American business.

Meanwhile, back in the States, that business continues as usual, with corporate lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) struggling to find fish big enough to throw to the Justice Department without compromising one oil company's buyout of another. Without coming right out and echoing Wall Street, Wright has to struggle with the concept that corruption is good.

All-American boy Matt Damon anchors another segment, but whether or not his commodities trader has a moral center still remains in question. Certainly his wife (Amanda Peet) questions it. But from the point of view of Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), Damon's Bryan Woodman has a refreshing willingness to be honest in a world where few traffic in candor.

Running counter to all of that is a disturbingly reasonable portrait of the making of a terrorist, as a young Pakistani (Mazhir Munir) falls sway to an Islamist, not Islamic, mode of thought. Yet as we see the damage being wrought behind the scenes, it's easy to see why a young man would turn to this, even as it horrifies us.

It takes a while for these threads to pull together, and for some, that may be a turn-off. The overall rhythm of the film also has a relaxed feel, for almost everyone involved has been there, done that. Bob Barnes has successfully engineered all kinds of political turnarounds, hinted at by his superiors, before things go horribly awry this time. Why shouldn't it work? Everybody likes Bob.

Like Traffic, Syriana plays with its cinematography, utilizing a washed-out feel for much of the film which gets a little uncomfortable. Perhaps the effect ends up being more cinema verite, but every now and then it would be nice to have a visual reminder that this isn't real.

We sort of do, in the manner of cultural references that we know aren't real. Oddly enough, Syriana has the same fake movie posters that the recently cancelled Threshold television series does. Take heart - the oil crisis is nothing compared to the coming alien invasion.

The script throws in few unintentional wrenches. In a couple of places, you can spot the cliché, particularly as Clooney walks nonchalantly away from an explosion that almost doesn't matter. We get betrayals that you can spot from miles away and a denoument that defies belief. Or perhaps, and this again is the scary part, the CIA can pull off something this public and nobody would care, as long as the oil continued flowing.

As usual since the Batman and Robin debacle, executive producer Clooney delivers a terrifically lived-in performance. (And physically dangerous - the weight gain he goes for has done some damage to him personally.) Bob is a guy that lives for his job, rarely connecting it to the lives that get lost as a result.

Behind Clooney lies a cadre of incredibly strong character actors. Not just Tim Blake Nelson, but Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Jamey Sheridan and Peet, finally getting a role that might lend weight to her status. Keep an eye on DS9's Siddig; granted, he's been sort of limited to playing the dignified Arab in film over the last couple of years, but he's going to become an important face.

Ultimately, Syriana is messy. But we should all be smart enough to realize that so is the issue that it tackles. Like it. Dislike it. But think about it.



Derek McCaw

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