With oil prices high and the political situation in the Middle East tenuous, Syriana arrives at the right time. Unlike most movies today, Syriana is a smart film, perhaps too smart for its own good. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan (Abandon) adapts Robert Baer's memoir See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism and densely packs together multiple stories that give a cynical view on the state of politics and business as it relates to the oil industry. In Gaghan's view, profit is the primary motivator in all things oil-related. Corruption is rampant, and everybody is a pawn in a larger scheme. And, while Gaghan's opinions are pretty overt, he wraps it into a compelling story. He is not overly preachy about what he believes is right and wrong. Basically, it's similar territory to his adaptation for Traffic.

The basic plot for Syriana is rooted in actual events. There is a limited supply of oil in the world, and most of it is in the Middle East. The United States consumes a disproportionate amount of that oil. As China and its billion plus citizens continue to march towards industrialization, they will require greater amounts of oil. Connex Oil just lost the rights to a small Arab nation to China. This leads them to merge with Killen, another oil company that has oil rights in Kazakhstan. A merger of this magnitude necessitates jumping through legal loopholes. Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright, Broken Flowers, The Manchurian Candidate) is the lawyer in charge of due diligence.

Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig, Kingdom of Heaven, Reign of Fire) is the one who sold the drilling rights to China. He is locked in a succession struggle with his brother Prince Meshal Al-Subaai (Akbar Kurtha, Esther Kahn, My Son the Fanatic). Nasir hired Geneva-based energy consultant Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon, The Brothers Grimm, Ocean's Twelve) to help with policy. Woodman tries unsuccessfully balancing his family life with a desire to do something better in the world. Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir) is directly affected by Nasir's decision. He loses his job, and turns towards radical Islam.

Meanwhile, the CIA is trying to figure out what to do with Agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney, Good Night and Good Luck, Ocean's Twelve). He is close to retirement and gets a desk job, but his heart lies in the field. Barnes is fluent in Arabic and Farsi. His last mission did not go completely as planned, but he is given one more chance; this time to assassinate Nasir. Events move quickly, and Gaghan has the stories touch upon each other. In a nice change from the norm, Gaghan expected his audience to keep up with his story. He doesn't slow down to explain things. The only time things may get confusing are when Holiday and other lawyers are going over finer points of the law. Everything is interconnected, sometimes incestuously. Upstanding people like Holiday and Woodman find themselves compromising their principles for what they believe is the greater good. They are at the beginning of their careers. At the other end are people like Barnes, who never compromised his principles but finds the world he constructed crumbing around him. The acting is strong and the subject matter is timely, and most importantly, Syriana works as an engaging intellectual thriller.

Haro Rates It: Pretty Good.
2 hours, 6 minutes, English, Farsi, and Arabic with English subtitles, Rated R for violence and language.

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