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I've already received some heat from Mike for mentioning that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was partially financed by Walden Media, which is run by a rich, socially conservative, Christian Republican. So let me say right off the top that Syriana was partially financed by Participant Productions which is run by a rich left-wing guy, Jeffrey Skoll, who was employee number one at eBay. It is also produced by Section 8, the company run by George Clooney and Steve Soderbergh. Their other film this fall is the fabulous Good Night and Good Luck, the story of Edward R. Murrow's battle with Joe McCarthy. I have to say that I've always liked George Clooney ever since he was dr. Ross on ER but now I just love him. Good Night and Good Luck, if you haven't seen it you should, will be on my top ten list for 2005. And Syriana will be right up there. It is John le Carré crossed with Tom Clancy, taking the good bits of both. Le Carré's books about British spies are great character studies with no action. They are all about the internal lives of people who aren't sure what side they are on. Tom Clancy, of course, thinks up great action plots but then spins them out using one dimensional characters. Syriana has the great characters and the great action plot.
Syriana tells the story of an aging spy (George Clooney) who is still out in the cold. He has spent his career in places like Lebanon and Iran, and like John Le Carré's spies, he has a little trouble seeing the line between the spies and the spied upon. He is great in the field, but back at the CIA he is always in hot water. As the movie begins, he is worried about a blown operation in which a surface-to-air missile went missing. His bosses want him to just shut up about it but he won't. So they send him off to Lebanon to kidnap and kill a prince (Alexander Siddig) from an obscure but oil-rich middle-eastern country. Instead, Clooney himself is kidnapped and tortured. He has become caught up in the oil politics of the middle east. Siddig is in line to become Emir of his country, but he favors selling oil to the Chinese rather than the USA. This sets in motion a sequence of events involving two large oil companies whose presidents (Chris Cooper & Christopher Plummer) are in the midst of a merger. There are many interlaced subplots. Siddig hires an American energy analyst (Matt Damon) to advise him, but Damon's wife (Amanda Peet) has reservations about his new line of work. A lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) working for Plummer is asked to shepherd the merger through the minefields of government approval. Two foreign workers (Mazhar Munir, Sonnell Dadral) laid off from working for the oil company, fall in with an Islamic fundamentalist (Amr Waked). I am purposely not telling you how all these subplots are related, but they are, and like in a Robert Altman movie, every character will become inexorably linked to every other even though they seem completely unrelated at the beginning.
The director of Syriana is yet another screenwriter, Stephen Gaghan. He wrote the screenplay for Traffic and apparently was taking notes on the set of that movie, because Syriana is a nifty piece of directing. The cast is to die for. George Clooney hasn't just matured as a person but he's matured as an actor too. He gained about 40 pounds for this part and really loses George Clooney in this role. He's amazing. Matt Damon, who has been going up as Ben Affleck goes down, knows a good thing when he sees it. This is his 4th movie with Clooney (Ocean's 11 & 12, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). Jeffrey Wright, the most underrated actor in Hollywood (Angels in America, Broken Flowers) has another great character role here. Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, Tim Blake Dalton (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Robert Foxworth (Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, Stargate SG-1, Enterprise), and Peter Gerety (Homicide: Life on the Street) play a bunch of conniving oil executives to the hilt. They are a joy to watch. Alexander Siddig, who played Dr. Bashir on Deep Space Nine, and is the nephew of Malcom McDowell, is really cool as the arab prince who wants to bring democracy to the middle east. Amanda Peet (Something's Gotta Give) has a little deeper role than is usual for her as Damon's wife. And watch for William Hurt as Clooney's deep throat in the CIA.
Syriana is a tense, exciting movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. You have to stay awake so that you can keep track of all the characters and subplots, but it's worth it. And the plot isn't full of holes as is all too usual for this kind of film. Obviously, there's a political message in Syriana but it is delivered not by preaching, but by being very entertaining. Go see it.