Oil Spill

Petroleum-based spy thriller fails to strike black gold

The price of oil is down 15 percent from its August high, but shares of George Clooney are through the roof. Still riding the critical wave of Good Night, and Good Luck., which he directed, co-wrote, and starred in, Clooney settles for executive producer and ensemble acting duties in Syriana, a glossy and hectic political thriller whose offscreen protagonist is a certain slimy fossil fuel. Nothing if not relevant, Syriana reprocesses real-world petro-paranoia as a big-budget thinking-man's movie. If in the end the film fails to say anything revelatory, the heat of topicality works wonders at creating a mirage of cinematic weight.

Writer-director Stephen Gaghan essentially relocates his Traffic screenplay to the Persian Gulf, substitutes oil for blow, and deploys an even more sizeable cast of transnational conspirators. The movie's 20-plus speaking parts fall into three broad categories: the public sector (embodied by Clooney's rogue CIA spy, first seen schmoozing in a Tehran bar); the private sector (Matt Damon's hotshot energy trader); and everyone in between (Jeffrey Wright's mysterious Beltway attorney). Suffice it to say, no one walks a straight line and everyone is his own free agent when it comes to exploiting what one fed calls "the greatest natural resource in the world."

Syriana's catalyzing event takes place (like much of the movie) in the plush corridors of financial power. When a Chinese company makes a buyout offer to an American oil giant, the U.S. government responds by speeding a preemptive merger with a domestic competitor. The result is a corporate behemoth that ranks as "the world's 23rd largest economy," according to one of the movie's Cheney-esque corporate baddies. (Gaghan isn't exaggerating all that much here. In 2001, ExxonMobil's revenues already outstripped the GDPs of Turkey, Denmark, and Poland.)

As in life, the merger is good for board members and bad for almost everyone else. In the movie's most compelling subplot, a group of Pakistani refinery workers gets laid off and gradually falls prey to a radical madrassah. Gaghan smartly films their indoctrination without moral judgment, going so far as to suggest empathy for these terrorists in training. Indeed, a suicide bomber's farewell to his father may be the movie's most human moment. Elsewhere, a restless prince (Alexander Siddig) in an unnamed oildom (Syriana?) jockeys for power as his decrepit father prepares to name an heir. Oxford educated and socially progressive, the prince represents the region's shining hope, but his rock-the-boat agenda eventually upsets Big Energy, which in turn leans on Washington.

Though filmed in 2004, Syriana seems to dramatize some of 2005's most lurid oil headlines--specifically, the thwarted takeover of U.S. oil firm Unocal by China's CNOOC in July; the death of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd a few weeks later; and the spike in oil prices to a record $70.85 per barrel in late August. Syriana is actually based on Robert Baer's 2003 spy memoir See No Evil, from which Gaghan adapts much of Clooney's subplot, including zingy one-liners like "In the CIA, you're innocent until you're investigated." Clooney, thoroughly de-playboyed with beard and gut, plays an inside man who's more comfortable working on the outside. When he's shafted for daring to question authority, viewers may have a hard time not thinking of Joseph C. Wilson (Valerie Plame's husband), whose recent diplomatic travails provide the movie with yet another real-life shadow.

Given its easy target, Syriana should have left a stronger impression, but Gaghan's directorial approach--all busy camera movement and disorienting edits--needlessly complicates an already complicated story. No Steven Soderbergh (or George Clooney for that matter), Gaghan seems more interested in form than content, and the film ultimately boils down to its rather lame tag line, "Everything is connected." For a meatier cross section of the global oil industry, Peter Maass's New York Times Magazine cover story "The Breaking Point" (August 21) delivers an informative and damning account of an energy crisis in the making. (The article is available in its entirety at petermaass.com.) Clear and levelheaded, Maass understands all too well that the oil that connects us is also the chain that will inevitably drag us down together.

 
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