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A Jigsaw Puzzle

Stephen Gaghan has a reputation for dealing with complicated issues. Five years ago he tackled the screenplay for Traffic about drug trafficking. This year he both writes and directs an epic film on the oil industry that spans the globe and involves a myriad of characters. Welcome to Syriana.

Syriana is written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who was inspired to make the film by Robert Baer, an ex-C.I.A. operative (on whom Clooney's character is also loosely based) who memorializes his experiences in See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism. As you can imagine, there are several different storylines running through film. The film's tagline reads: Everything is Connected. And it is.

A plumped up George Clooney plays covert C.I.A. agent Bob Barnes who while undercover in Iran loses a missile, which happens to be sold to Mohammed Sheik Agiza (Amr Waked), a charismatic terrorist leader who recruits na´ve and vulnerable young men like Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir), a Pakistani migrant worker struggling to find employment in the Persian Gulf after he and his father lose their jobs at Connex Oil during its controversial merger with Killen, owned by Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper).

The business transaction is being closely examined by the Department of Justice who enlists the aid of the Sloan Whiting law firm, headed by Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer -- does this man ever age?), to perform due diligence. Whiting hand picks Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright who is excellent here) to ensure a smooth transition. Indeed Whiting has his hands in many pies. Including that of an unspecified Gulf kingdom in which he instigates a power play between two brothers for Emir; the elder Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), a progressive leader who has his country's best interests at heart and doesn't want to see his homeland raped of its resources for the sole benefit of American greed; and the younger power-hungry Prince Meshal Al-Subaai (Akbar Kurtha), who is a puppet of U.S. interests. While Whiting works towards his own shady goals, a Geneva-based energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is supporting the elder Prince and pushing for reform while dealing with his own crumbling family life

Meanwhile, the C.I.A. is trying to assassinate Al-Subaai. This unsavory assignment is given to Barnes who seeks the help of former colleague Stan Hoff (William Hurt) before running off to bright and shiny places like Beirut. He is merely a pawn of American interests and those interests ain't pretty. Particularly those of the C.L.I. (Committee to Liberate Iran) who rather suck Middle Eastern countries dry of every conceivable drop of oil rather than allow them a just leader. You realize the U.S. is vested in the Mid-East being a total mess. They are vested in corruption and totalitarianism. The more screwed up the region becomes, the better for our own country's interests: oil.

Needless to say, Syriana spans the globe. You are continuously shuffled all over the world; it can get pretty damn confusing and you'll find yourself feeling lost. But then again that's the point. In reality, the issues at hand are a tangled mess that is not easily explained and so neither is their depiction. Nonetheless, Gaghan could have rolled it in a little.

What Gaghan does do is employ great direction and tight writing. He predominantly uses handheld cameras and the result is that you feel like you are in the thick of it. You are right there with the characters. You practically feel every yank in a torture scene to rival all scenes, which entails the wielding of a rusty pair of pliers and the pulling out of nails.

Gaghan should be commended for undertaking such an important, relevant issue. The film is beautiful, but can be a bit overwhelming (as it was meant to be) and straight out confusing. There are too many side stories floating about and not all of them make sense. Unfortunately, this takes away from the film somewhat, leaving Syriana less than it could be.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars