2005-12-16 / Columnists


By Robert Snyder

The writer of Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” has now directed his newest script, “Syriana.”  Stephen Gaghan somehow manages to simplify the mixed-up oil mess in the Middle East, with an incredibly convoluted series of sub-plots. Throughout the muddle are sporadic moments of high suspense, graphic brutality and a propagandist picture that evil American interests will stop at nothing to secure oil rights in that region.

Bouncing around amongst the multiple storylines is overweight CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney), who finds himself double-crossed during his attempt to assassinate Iranian oil heir, Prince Nasir (Alexander Sidding). The prince is a good guy interested in reforming his country, but willing to give lucrative oil rights to the Chinese at the expense of Texas energy giant Connex, which has just merged with a smaller oil company, Killen. It’s the Americans who want Nasir out and his U.S. sympathetic younger brother, Prince Meshal (Akbar Kurtha), in.

But assassinating sheiks is not so easy. This is why Barnes winds up in a Beirut dungeon having his fingernails pulled off.

Matt Damon is floating around as well, playing energy analyst Bryan Woodman, advising Prince Nasir on how to maximize his profits. The prince owes him big-time because Woodman’s little son is accidentally electrocuted in the sheik’s swimming pool. Throw into the stew is sinister D.C. power lawyer Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) and his legal henchman Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), along with a despondent Pakistani out-of-work oil worker (Mazhar Munir) groomed to be a suicide bomber.

And what have you got? A political thriller that makes its audience work real hard to make sense of it all. In other words, much effort with little reward.

But those who hang in will be intrigued, yet wary that the Mid-East crisis can be reduced to two Iranian brothers caught between Chinese and U.S. oil interests. The acting is mainly confined to the stars explaining bits of narrative, except Clooney who looks pained (in fact, he was, having suffered a near-crippling spinal injury during the torture sequence).

As for the title, “Syriana,” I never heard it used in the film. Someone told me that it is a code name for Clooney’s character, who is based on a real agent.

Maybe, “Syriana” is too secretive to use in the movie of the same name. No, that makes too much sense.

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