Based rather loosely on former CIA operative Robert Baer's controversial memoir, "See No Evil," the film focuses on figures involved both directly and indirectly with the oil trade and its messy entanglement with global politics. George Clooney's bearded, paunchy Bob Barnes is a thinly-veiled facsimile of Baer -- fluent in Farsi and Arabic and lethal when he needs to be, he's one of the CIA's most crucial Middle East operatives. But the latest call to assassinate an Arab prince is riskier than most, though for reasons not wholly clear to anyone but the audience. From their God's eye perspective, they are made privy to the ripple effect that an impending oil company merger has throughout the globe. Among those caught up in this multifarious chain of events are an oil industry analyst (Matt Damon) hired by the target of Barnes' intended assassination, the attorney assigned to investigate the merger (Geoffrey Wright) and a Pakistani laborer (Mazhar Munir) driven toward terrorism after the merger wipes out his job.
Unlike "Traffic," where Gaghan was essentially abridging an already successful miniseries, "Syriana" gives him no preexistent structure with which to work, resulting in a few more bumps and hitches along the way. In some sense, this makes it feel more credible, not so obviously concocted, less neat. In short, more like reality. But some stories also end up feeling undercooked and half-conceived, with the key theme -- that the stated American goals of defeating terrorism and promoting democracy in the Middle East are actually undermined by the government's cozy and often crooked entanglement with big oil -- coming off as a naive oversimplification. That being said, Gaghan has succeeded in pushing enough buttons and raising enough questions that "Syriana" never feels like a polemic -- it has its point of view, but audiences need not necessarily embrace it to feel compelled and provoked.
Stylistically, Gaghan has yet to really find his voice -- his directing debut, the dismal 2002 thriller "Abandon," which he made in the wake of his Oscar win, was mechanical and unimaginative. Here he fares much better, but only by adopting the same herky-jerky style with which Steven Soderbergh directed "Traffic." Nevertheless, just mounting a film this broad and complex with any kind of credible suspension of disbelief -- especially in the face of current events that dominate the nightly newscasts -- is no small achievement, whatever shortcomings may manifest themselves along the way. It may be, too, that a full appreciation of "Syriana" will require more distance from global events, perhaps years down the line when its premises and conclusions are categorically proved or disproved. Until that time, audiences will have more than enough on which to chew and feed their private debates. Starring George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Matt Damon and Amanda Peet. Directed and written by Stephen Gaghan. Produced by Jennifer Fox, Georgia Kacandes and Michael Nozik. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 126 min