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Challenging drama targets oil industry corruption

It's not really a critic's job to focus on a motion picture's finances -- either what it costs or what it grosses. But after watching writer-director Stephen Gaghan's Syriana, I couldn't help but scratch my head as I wondered how Warner Bros. thought it would be able to recoup the movie's production costs.

A strong showing in the upcoming year-end awards race would help -- and some potential Oscar nods would sweeten the pot even more. But for the time being, as the film begins its run through the holidays (it opened in limited release November 23 and expands to more cities, including Charlotte, this Friday), it begs question: Why would a substantial number of Americans turn out to see this? With so many citizens keeping themselves blissfully ignorant about what's going on in the Middle East, why would anyone want to see a complex drama about oil-industry shenanigans when they can be watching Dennis Quaid getting a bucket of paint dropped on his head in Yours, Mine and Ours? Why would people be interested in a film that casts a critical light on the way the US conducts business overseas when they can check out Steve Martin crashing through a boat dock in Cheaper By the Dozen 2? And for God's sake, why would people waste time on a challenging movie in which nothing is presented in black-and-white terms when they can see Johnny Knoxville pretending to be retarded so he can rub up against a cute girl in The Ringer?

OK, so the sanctimonious tone may not be justified -- after all, I'm the guy who gave 3-1/2 stars to the cheerful vulgarity of The 40-Year-Old Virgin -- yet I pose my query regarding the movie's potential profit margin (or lack thereof) in earnest. George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck is considered a hit only because it cost a mere $7 million to produce and largely played the art-house circuit -- in the real (read: mainstream) world, its $21 million gross would have relegated it to turkey status, not even enough to pay for tune-ups on a studio head's personal fleet of SUVs. Syriana, on the other hand, cost substantially more, and a box-office fallout might put the kibosh on socially relevant films for a while and send its stars, Clooney and Matt Damon, crawling back to sign up for an Ocean's Thirteen.

But let's hope not. Syriana is exactly the type of movie that can elevate its medium. It's intelligent agitprop, a stimulating fireball that deserves to be the center of water-cooler conversation. If the movie has a fault, it's that it's too smart for its own good, assuming audiences are knowledgeable enough to grasp every historical reference, decipher every snatch of insider lingo and understand the intricate workings of American conglomerates. But better a movie attempt to smarten up its viewers than to dumb them down.

Gaghan, who earned the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, again weaves together a head-spinning mix of people, places and incidents, though the end result isn't quite as fluid this time around. The first portion of Syriana is incredibly dense, and it takes a good while to locate our bearings in relation to the various players and what's happening to them. Yet as the movie progresses, plotlines come into focus even if the characters don't always follow suit. Ultimately, we realize that's Gaghan's goal: Politics and business are complicated, and so are the people who inhabit those worlds. It's their delicious ambiguity that makes the characters seem tangibly alive, as several of these folks weigh their shrinking sense of ethics against the crushing forces of capitalism and commerce.

No specific story strand merits more attention than another in Gaghan's sprawling screenplay, and most dovetail into each other by the end. Bob Barnes (Clooney) is a grizzled CIA field operative -- for a suitable screen antecedent, think Richard Burton's spy who came in from the cold -- who's stunned when his years of service and devotion count for naught once his superiors decide it's in their best interest to betray him. Bryan Woodman (Damon) is an energy analyst whose personal tragedy serves as a springboard for close ties with a prominent member of a Middle Eastern dynasty.

Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is an opportunistic lawyer who finds himself navigating the choppy waters of a merger between two oil company behemoths hoping to gorge themselves on lucrative deals certain to harm everyone else. And Princes Nasir (Alexander Siddig) and Meshal (Akbar Kurtha) are brothers with different outlooks -- one hopes to reform and rebuild his unnamed Middle Eastern country so it can prosper on its own; the other seeks to further line his own pockets by establishing close ties with the American oil industry. Guess which sibling is warmly embraced by the US government and which one gets branded a radical worthy of extermination?

There's one additional plotline about a disillusioned Pakistani kid (Mazhar Munir) groomed to become a suicide bomber. But this is the weakest part of the film, with a surface-skimming that can't even match the shaky presentation of similar material in the recent import Paradise Now.

Syriana, inspired by Robert Baer's book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War On Terrorism, is a deeply pessimistic movie, which of course means it's the perfect film to represent the current malaise running unchecked through our nation. It offers little hope and no answers, catering instead to the substantial number of Americans who feel that the bad guys -- chiefly, Big Business and Big Government -- have already won and that there's not a damn thing we ordinary citizens can do about it. For those who already believe this, the movie's a well-executed downer. For those seeking to educate themselves about the ways of the world, the movie's a must-see. And for those who prefer to keep blinders firmly attached ... well, there's always Dennis Quaid and that bucket of paint.

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