Fear and loathing in the Middle East

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Fear and loathing in the Middle East


If you listen to the extremes of political discourse in the United States, the current government is either a righteous army of freedom or a dastardly pack of ignorant liars out to snatch as much oil as possible for their cronies. In this polarized landscape, “Syriana” is a rare attempt to provoke genuine political debate, as thoughtful and complex as Bill O’Reilly and Michael Moore are not.
In “Syriana,” everyone has their own loyalties, morals and hidden agendas. Over a rollercoaster two hours the film weaves a bundle of story threads together into a harrowing, human mosaic of the modern geopolitical world. That is, if you can keep track of all the characters. Ready?
George Clooney plays Bob Barnes, a CIA agent on his way to retirement who gets sent to Beirut one last time to put out a hit on Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), who is engaged in a succession struggle with his brother (Akbar Kurtha), who’s trying to convince his father (Nadim Sawalha) to call off an oil deal with the Chinese that Nasir is executing with the help of an American consultant (Matt Damon), who has to figure out how to compete with a massive oil conglomerate whose latest merger is being audited by a lawyer named Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), who works for oil exec Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper) at the firm of Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), to whom Barnes (remember him?) eventually traces a double-cross in Lebanon. Meanwhile, two Pakistani kids who’ve been forced to move to an unspecified Gulf country lose their jobs and have nowhere else to go but the local Islamic school, where they gradually convert to terrorism.
It seems confusing, but I did that without referring to a plot summary, and as long as you pay attention you’ll be fine too. But even if you are a little disoriented, don’t worry: you’re supposed to be.
The quick cuts of “Syriana,” combined with a dark and dirty visual palette, are part of what make the story work. This is a film meant to undermine conventional wisdom and present a Middle East as bewildering and overwhelming and close to real life as fiction can make it. The near-endless list of characters, their loyalties constantly in doubt and their morality always unclear, are a means to that end.
It may be fiction, but it feels frighteningly real, thanks in part to the deliberately overcharged script and haze of dust and paranoia that hangs over every scene.
But the domestic scenes are the finishing touch. All of the characters have on-screen families. Relationships with fathers, wives and children humanize and complicate what might otherwise have been one-sided villains or clear-cut heroes. At the film’s most extreme, the scenes of the two Pakistani teenagers finding their only solace and companionship at a fundamentalist religious school is truly tragic, and American viewers will probably be reminded of news stories about inner city kids drawn into gangs out of a need for community.
“Syriana,” like its director’s previous film, “Traffic,” is a new brand of filmmaking, outrunning the viewer deliberately to make a point. In this case, the technique is brutally and disturbingly effective.

Drama / English
126 min.
Opens Thursday

by Ben Applegate
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