Writer-director Stephen Gaghan has a full tank of ideas in “Syriana,” a tale of oil-industry corruption and conspiracy whose story is almost too dense and taxing for the average guy at the pumps.
The filmmaker applies the multiple story lines, far-flung locations and detached-observer perspective he used in Steven Soderbergh’s drug drama “Traffic,” whose screenplay earned Gaghan an Academy Award.
The effect may not be as sharp and street-level emotional as “Traffic,” yet “Syriana” weaves powerful moments of pathos, compassion, and cross-cultural insight into its lesson on the realities of greed in international commerce.
Anyone who grouses that Hollywood dumbs everything down should check out “Syriana,” a fiercely intelligent thriller that puts audiences through a challenging mental workout to decipher and digest its intricate ideas and dialogue.
It’s impossible to absorb it all in a single viewing, and so much is packed into such a tight space that “Syriana” occasionally feels too truncated, like a two- or three-night miniseries clipped to fit a movie-of-the-week time slot.
Still, Gaghan injects so much personality into his characters — and the cast led by George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper and Amanda Peet embody them so richly — that a great deal of humanity shines through in what otherwise could have been an academic exercise.
As “Traffic” did with drug smugglers and government enforcers, “Syriana” wanders among the shadowy parties that open or tighten the spigots on petroleum running to the refineries, from corporate board rooms to federal agencies to the palaces of Arab royalty.
Anchoring the story is Clooney as CIA career man Bob Barnes, a character inspired by intelligence agent Robert Baer and his memoir “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism” (Clooney and Soderbergh turned Gaghan on to the book, and their production company helped produce the film).
Barnes is a dutiful trooper and supremely competent in often dastardly undercover missions in the Middle East, where he seems more at home than among the Washington political tricksters who pull his strings.
His seen-it-all demeanor is balanced by the naivete of young energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Damon), who takes his wife (Peet) and family along on a trip to pursue a Mideast business opportunity. Woodman forges an unexpected bond with a reformist Arab prince (Alexander Siddig) seeking to put his country on a progressive economic and social footing.
Swirling through this world are the special interests — Cooper as the head of a Texas oil company about to consolidate with a global rival, Wright as an attorney trying to maneuver the merger to federal regulatory approval, and Christopher Plummer as his boss, a slick lawyer manipulating internal Mideast politics to the advantage of U.S. business interests.
Plummer is simply chilling in a relatively small role as a corporate predator who comes bearing a soft smile and a handshake, while William Hurt as a shady Clooney ally and Tim Blake Nelson as an oil-industry sleaze make strong impressions in even more fleeting roles.
Behind a bushy, grizzled beard, Clooney is a gripping presence despite his character’s utter lack of showiness. Clooney plays him as the stoic opposite of his P.T. Barnum ringleader in the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies, a workmanlike believer who goes about his job as a matter of philosophical conviction.
Wright delivers the most well-rounded performance, subtly capturing the inner conflict of a man trying to reconcile personal ambition with distaste for the world in which he thrives.
Gaghan tosses in a couple of seriously undercooked side stories for Clooney and Wright’s characters, family crises that come off as sketchy appendages whose real meat likely ended up on the cutting-room floor.
“Syriana” also shortchanges the story of two Arab friends (Mazhar Munir and Sonell Dadral) disillusioned over Western corporate heartlessness.
Certainly, Gaghan had big choices to make about what to cut and what to leave in. But if Peter Jackson can let “King Kong” run to three hours, isn’t there room to let a movie as smart as “Syriana” run to 2 1/2, thereby gaining in dimension and potency?
Not many movies stand to gain from a longer running time, but “Syriana” is one of them.