[Screen It]

(2005) (George Clooney, Alexander Siddig) (R)

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Drama: The complex paths of disparate individuals eventually converge as the U.S. government and a corporate oil giant position themselves in response to an Arab Gulf State seeking to realign its oil ties and business.
Bob Barnes (GEORGE CLOONEY) is a covert CIA agent who might come off as somewhat of a loose cannon to some of his superiors, but always manages to get the job done. After completely his latest mission only to have a Stinger missile apparently end up in the wrong hands, Bob's latest assignment is even dicier. It seems that the U.S. Government isn't pleased that Prince Nasir (ALEXANDER SIDDIG) has opted to switch his business allegiance of producing oil from the U.S. to China. Accordingly, they want him taken out.

That development also doesn't sit well with Texas oil company Connex that's now after Killen, a smaller operation -- run by Jimmy Pope (CHRIS COOPER) -- that's recently won the drilling rights in Kazakhstan and thus would be lucrative for their business. To get around potential Justice Dept. scrutiny, they hire a powerful D.C. law firm run by Dean Whiting (CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER) to make sure the merger can go through. He assigns up and coming star attorney Bennett Holiday (JEFFREY WRIGHT) to work on the case, thus meaning that lawyer will have less time to deal with his alcoholic father (WILLIAM C. MITCHELL).

At the same time, Whiting wishes to undermine Prince Nasir by trying to get his father the king to choose Nasir's younger and more malleable brother, Prince Meshal (AKBAR KURTHA), to succeed him as ruler of their country. Nasir doesn't see his brother as a serious threat, and he's planning on reforming his country for the good in what will likely be radical changes for the status quo. His latest and unlikely advisor is energy analyst Bryan Woodman (MATT DAMON) who has no problem telling the Prince exactly what he thinks about his country and how the world perceives it. Part of that relationship is due to the accidental drowning of Bryan's son at Nasir's estate, a tragedy that still deeply affects Bryan's wife Julie (AMANDA PEET).

Then there are Connex workers Saleem Ahmed Kahn (SHAHID AHMED) and his son Wasim (MAZHAR MUNIR) who've just been laid off from work. Along with his friend Farooq (SONNELL DADRAL), Wasim eventually finds himself drawn to a radical Muslim group led by a charismatic recruiter who just so happens to possess Bob's missing Stinger missile. As the various disparate parties attempt to get what they want, their paths eventually converge in ways they couldn't imagine.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Considering that oil company profits are at record highs (one such entity reported an $8 billion quarterly profit), and that pumping a gallon of petrol into your gas guzzler involves a complicated array of such corporations, the U.S. and other governments, and most likely any number of shady operatives and deals, it only makes sense that a film about all of that would be just as complicated and complex.

Like the intricate story he penned for "Traffic," writer/director Stephen Gaghan delivers a multi-layered tale in "Syriana," a far more polished, engaging and ambitious sophomore follow-up to his directorial debut of "Abandon" back in 2002.

Adapted from a book by Robert Baer, the film is a compelling look at fictitious oil companies, political wrangling and covert government doings, as well as the aftereffects of their actions, all involving who gets to make a buck off Earth's crude.

With many viewers facing high heating costs this winter following high gasoline prices this summer, not to mention continued unrest in the Middle East, the film should certainly benefit from being timely. And those looking for a tale of complex maneuverings and corruption as presented via a dramatic thriller could do far worse than what this film offers.

The performances are all good (and some are terrific), the direction is taut in individual scenes and sequences, and the various stories are intriguing and/or engaging. But the problem is that there are just too many individual plotlines and characters. While it's somewhat fun trying to figure out how they're all going to intersect, collide or at least influence the others in one way or another (as we instinctually know they must), they all end up feeling shortchanged to some degree.

Yes, I know, I can't believe I'm saying it, but the film needs to be longer than its just over two-hour runtime. Either that, or some of the individual threads should have been dropped or more tightly woven into one of the other stories, thus allowing them and their characters more time to breathe, let alone develop.

As it stands, once you get into one story - such as George Clooney playing a potential loose cannon of a covert CIA assassin or Alexander Siddig embodying a prince who wants to make his country more progressive at the potential risk of drawing the wrath not only of the U.S. but also that of his own people and family - Gaghan has to switch to one of the many other stories so that they're not left out.

While there's that collective momentum of knowing all of the stories will eventually come together in some fashion, each story's individual sense of building impetus never feels like it's taken to its fullest possible degree.

Even so, you have to admire a film that's venturesome in terms of painting most everyone and everything in varying shades of grey. Accordingly, we can see the reasons behind the villains' actions - such as that involving terrorist activities stemming from the ramifications of others' decisions - while the "good guys" aren't necessarily always good or even right.

And with all of those stories and people, you certainly won't ever be bored, although you may find yourself lost and/or confused at times in regards to who's doing what to whom and why, especially involving some of the secondary and minor characters.

Good, but not as brilliant as its posturing seems to otherwise imply, the film either needs to extend its running time or jettison some of the material so that the better moments are allowed to flourish and develop the way they want and need to. "Syriana" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 14, 2005 / Posted December 9, 2005

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