In "Syriana," George Clooney plays CIA operative Bob Barnes, an avuncular career agent who used to know where all the bodies were buried -- mainly because he did most of the digging. In the 1980s, the Cold War made things morally easy, bifurcating the world into black fur hats and white Stetsons. But when a routine arms deal in Tehran goes awry, Bob realizes the rules are changing. It seems the CIA no longer needs seasoned agents like him -- the ones who know the cultural terrain. It's all satellite reconnaissance and missile button pushing these days. So what becomes of an obsolete foot soldier, still struggling to pay his son's college bills? These are urgent issues for Bob, but in "Syriana," they're just one ripple in a brave crude world.

A premium-octane thriller about a society that has become insidiously dependent on oil, "Syriana" was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, whose screenplay for "Traffic" was a top-down expose of the global drug industry. Here, he repeats the procedure and succeeds even more persuasively. (See In Focus on Page 31.)

The dealers this time are American executives, Arab princes, religious zealots, terrorists and economic opportunists, all connected one way or another to the oil industry. As in "Traffic," the addicts are us -- the consumers -- but instead of rolling, snorting or shooting narcotics, we're mainlining our SUV tanks with the good stuff.

If "Syriana" sounds like a dry exercise in macroeconomic morality, it's not. It's a taut, multilayered breath-mugger whose storyline shifts dexterously from Mideast oil fields to Houston corporate suites, never losing its metronomic pace or sense of urgency. What's so powerful about the film is the rich stories it tells and how it leads them like so many human tributaries to one black, bubbling source.

-- Desson Thomson

CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney), one of many touched by the oil industry in "Syriana."