Important – but also dull

  • By Robert Horton / Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, December 8, 2005 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

“Syriana” is a rebuke to the idea that Hollywood never comes up with anything serious or complex. It’s a film of admirable ambitions, which makes it all the more disappointing.

This movie might well have important things to reveal about the oil industry, its stranglehold on American government officials, and the role oil plays in Middle East politics. If it were easier to follow its plot or care about its characters, this might matter more.

Writer-director Stephen Gaghan, who scripted the similarly multi-leveled “Traffic,” has opened up a broad canvas for “Syriana.” Two seismic shifts in the oil biz set off its main storylines.

In a Middle Eastern oil country, a forward-looking young prince (Alexander Siddig) has just switched drilling rights from a Texas oil corporation to a Chinese company. This upsets U.S. interests and essentially paints a target on the prince’s back.

Meanwhile, the Texas oil company angles to merge with a smaller player on the global market. An up-and-coming attorney (Jeffrey Wright) investigates the merger, with his power-broker boss (Christopher Plummer), the Justice Department, and an oil buccaneer (Chris Cooper) breathing down his neck.

A hotshot young energy company executive (Matt Damon), living in Geneva with his wife (Amanda Peet), insinuates himself with the young prince. For such a company man, his fresh ideas seem a bit idealistic.

The CIA is mixed into this, too. A well-traveled agent (George Clooney) heads back to the Gulf for one last dirty job. He has nasty surprises waiting for him.

This last character is the film’s most promising. Maybe it’s because he has the weary air of a Graham Greene hero, or maybe it’s the sight of a transformed Clooney (30 pounds heavier and bearded). But this might have been the guy to follow.

Instead, Gaghan sticks to a hop-scotching design, moving us from place to place. Even this might have been exciting if the connections and stories were clear. Perhaps they will be to some eagle-eyed viewers, but I struggled to make head or tails of the picture for most of its 126-minute running time. (Maybe a four-hour version would have the room to lay everything out.)

“Syriana” was shot partly in Morocco and Dubai, and its Middle Eastern scenes have a gritty, you-are-there quality. Gaghan’s bluntness about how many soiled hands are involved in the oil business spares no one: greedy oil execs, CIA operatives and the U.S. government.

Dull: An ambitious take on the connections between the global oil industry and governments around the world – told through a complicated (and confusing) group of settings. George Clooney and Matt Damon are among the many characters in Stephen Gaghan’s film.

Rated: R rating is for violence and language

Now showing: Everett 9, Galaxy, Loews, Marysville, Mountlake, Meridian, Metro, Oak Tree, Woodinville, Cascade

Along with his low-key performance, George Clooney executive-produced the film; the rest of the cast is hard-working without cutting deep. And by the way, is the almost total absence of female characters a comment on the masculine nature of the oil-and-politics business, or just an oversight?

At one point the Matt Damon character is explaining how exciting his work is to him, and then observes, “I know it sounds like guys in hotel rooms talking…” Actually, that does describe how the movie plays – very important information being delivered to us through fairly dull means.

Matt Damon, George Clooney and Alexander Siddig star in “Syriana.”

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