George Clooney put on 30 pounds to play a CIA operative in "Syriana," but the weight that matters is in the movie itself -- a premium-octane thriller about a world that has become insidiously dependent on oil.
Writer-director Stephen Gaghan, whose screenplay for "Traffic" was a top-down expose of the global drug industry, from Department of Justice officials to street dealers, repeats the procedure and succeeds even more persuasively.
The dealers, this time, are American executives, Arab princes, religious zealots, terrorists and economic opportunists, extending from Washington to the Persian Gulf, all of them connected one way or another to the global oil industry. And just 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. And like the great '60s and '70s political thrillers (Costa-Gavras's "Z," "All the President's Men"), it trades atmospherically in dread, danger and malfeasance. If the multiple plots and geographic hopscotching feel overwhelming at first, they soon coalesce into sharp relief.
Clooney plays Bob Barnes, an avuncular career agent who used to know where all the bodies were buried -- mainly because he did most of the digging. (His character's a very fictional spin on real agent Robert Baer, whose 2002 memoir "See No Evil" was the movie's primary source material.) In the 1980s, the Cold War made things morally easy, bifurcating the world into black fur hats and white Stetsons. And Bob, who speaks Farsi and Arabic, slid like a shadow from Beirut to Baghdad or wherever he was needed.
But Bob soon realizes the rules are changing. Now every ideologue with a shoulder-fired missile, Web site and hotline to al-Jazeera is a power player. So, too, are Texas oilmen, Washington lawyers and Mideast royalty. Bob's handlers at Langley, too, seem to be squirming and shifting to the new order.
What is happening to his world? It seems the CIA no longer needs seasoned agents like Bob -- 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. Everyone's caught in the viscous flow, fighting for personal stakes and heedless of the consequences.
When oil broker Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) attends a pool party to toady up to a powerful client, for example, his family suffers a devastating tragedy. Rebounding from the trauma, Bryan renews his efforts to make money in the oil game but pays even more dearly. And on a larger scale, when Connex, a Texas oil company, lays off its guest workers in the Gulf, one ousted employee (Mazhar Munir) takes the bellicose words of a religious cleric too closely to heart. This abstract business decision, made in the air-conditioned comfort of corporate America, is about to trigger something deadly halfway around the world.
Bob, whose patriotic missions haven't always been squeaky-clean, also can't escape the karma. He's apprehended abroad and, in a scene that rivals the dental work in "Marathon Man" for excruciating horror, is tortured. He gets no help from the CIA, which counterspins itself into a frenzy, disavowing any connection with him. What goes around comes around, it seems, with plausible deniability.
Clooney, whose production company Section Eight produced "Syriana" (and the elegant "Good Night, and Good Luck"), is bedeviled by good looks. At times it's hard to look past the matinee idol glow and see the actor at work. But with his hangdog, bloated presence, and the star wattage drained from his eyes, Clooney forces us to focus on his graceful, intelligent performance.
He's just one of an inspired ensemble, including Jeffrey Wright as an attorney investigating the merger of two Texas oil companies, who watches the slow crumbling of his principles, and Alexander Siddig as the idealistic Prince Nasir Al-Subaai, an Oxford-educated visionary who wants to transform his country from American banana republic to economic independence. Blink and you can miss terrific turns from William Hurt as Bob's benevolent Deep Throat (who likes to meet in movie theaters and a parking lot in College Park), and Chris Cooper playing a Texas corporate leader who's anxious to make that merger work.
The real star of "Syriana" -- the title is a Washington think-tanky term to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East -- is its superb design. Gaghan, who won an Oscar for his "Traffic" screenplay, takes an amorphous subject and gives it sharp and entertaining focus. Corruption, observes an American corporate flunky (Tim Blake Nelson), "is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why we win."
Gaghan also invests screen time outside the American sphere so that we get an empathetic mosaic of perspectives and attitudes. What's so powerful about "Syriana" is the rich stories it tells and how it leads them like so many human tributaries to one black bubbling source.
Syriana (126 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence and profanity.