Oil Slick 

"Syriana" slips on its own glossy surface.

"Syriana" was written and directed by "Traffic" writer Stephen Gaghan, and once you learn that, everything makes more sense. Or at least it explains why it's so hard to make sense of everything. Gaghan seems to believe that being obtuse is the best form of entertainment. "Syriana" is like "Traffic" writ large, except it's about oil. Whereas "Traffic" hopped back and forth across the Mexican-American border, "Syriana" travels all over the world, especially Washington, D.C., and the Middle East. In oak-inlayed offices and dusty tents, we learn what motivates senators and imams, oil magnates and day laborers. Revealing is what "Syriana" is all about — lifting the curtain to let us see the many faces of Oz who create the daily headlines in major newspapers. That's why it is so frustrating that making an understandable story was not also an objective.

By far the most damaging error is the lack of a main character. That duty is distributed among a few people, but mainly Matt Damon and George Clooney. Both play characters who appear to be successful: They support their families well, live in exotic locales and have access to the powerful, to whom they are really merely pawns. Damon works in the corporate world as a spokesman for an oil company and Clooney as an agent of the government's intelligence community. The movie shows us how these two dark entities are hand in glove, which we witness as Damon and Clooney dangerously intersect each other in the same vast web of plots and intrigue.

All the characters of "Syriana" serve as types. There is the poor father and son from Pakistan, working in distant oil fields. When a new company takes over, they are laid off in favor of cheaper labor, and we watch as the son salves his injured body and pride with the attentions of the local Muslim fundamentalists. Opposite on the wheel of fortune are two princes, one good and the other evil. Damon's character falls for the grand promises of the good one, while Clooney's character is instructed to take him out. Damon nearly kills this prince first, though, with self-righteous speeches about the finite supply of oil and how his excessive spending will leave them with nothing but a desert full of dangerous extremists.

There is a lot of this kind of thing in "Syriana," and again it is an example of something admirable executed poorly. One character suggests we connect the dots of U.S. involvement in Middle East affairs since the turn of the last century. Then the topic is dropped and we move on, and I wondered, "Do they actually expect people to do that?" "Syriana" goes after the powerful, but it's so densely packed and lacking a central narrative that even those who follow prognosticative magazines like the New York Review of Books will have a hard time following everything.

"Syriana" reminds me of "Network," if only because that movie said essentially the same thing, but in an entertaining and memorable way. I like the connections "Syriana" makes; it just doesn't make them effectively enough, or in a way that will cause people to recommend the film to a friend. The points it makes are topics we should be talking about, but these points have to be made in a way people can appreciate and take home with them. (R) 128 min. ***S


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