"Syriana" paints slick picture of corruption in oil industry

Watch closely and listen carefully during "Syriana" because Stephen Gaghan's movie is that rarity: a thinking person's drama. And even thinking people might be forgiven for getting a little lost in Gaghan's labyrinth, a tangled tale of corruption within the global oil industry.

Gaghan isn't interested in spelling things out and tying up loose ends. The result is a film that rewards multiple viewings and thoughtful mulling. (Full disclosure: I've watched it twice and remain somewhat puzzled, which is actually rather refreshing.)

Reminiscent of Gaghan's Oscar-winning screenplay for "Traffic," "Syriana" glides between numerous story lines, locations, characters and even colors. Director of photography Robert Elswit (who's having a heck of a season; he recently shot the beautiful black-and-white "Good Night, and Good Luck") finds an icy blue light for corporate conference rooms and a yellowish chill in the heat of the Persian Gulf, where monarchs and dealmakers drape themselves in blinding white. The handheld camera surreptitiously captures moments over a shoulder, or across a room, like a quiet intruder.

George Clooney, bearded and big-bellied, plays Bob Barnes, a CIA agent determined to pull off one last job. He's lived in a web of lies for too long; he's tired, his colleagues mistrust him, his teenage son (Max Minghella) is indifferent to him.

By contrast, young Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) bursts with vigor. He's an up-and-comer at an energy-trading company, an American living in Geneva with his picturesque family. His smile is slightly too quick. He knows he's in just a bit over his head, and he's working hard to compensate.

Jeffrey Wright plays Bennett Holiday, an elegant Washington, D.C., lawyer who nonetheless knows that he fades into the background. Given the assignment to investigate a merger between two Texas oil companies, he's ready to make his mark but is uncomfortable in the schmoozy world of dealmaking. And his present is at odds with his past: His alcoholic father (William C. Mitchell) haunts him like a shabby ghost.

Across the sea, more story lines emerge. The ambitious son (Alexander Siddig) of a Persian Gulf monarch sees himself as a reformer and is thrown into a business relationship with Bryan when a tragedy unexpectedly brings them together.

Another father-and-son pair bring a very different perspective: two laid-off refinery workers who dream of returning to their native Pakistan. The son, Wasim (Mazhar Munir), kicks a soccer ball with a friend while discussing Spider-Man; they might be any pair of American teenagers, except for their lack of hope.

Rich performances add flavor to this meaty stew: Wright, Clooney and Damon all are in top form, and Siddig has the steely-eyed confidence of a veteran movie star. Chris Cooper, as a cheerfully corrupt oil executive, and William Hurt, as a former CIA agent now happily raking in money as a consultant, contribute indelible cameos, and Christopher Plummer purrs silkily as Wright's cuff-linked boss.

Ultimately, though, "Syriana" is a thriller, and its final scenes take on a tense suspense, as Alexandre Depslat's score shimmers alluringly in the background like a desert mirage. We leave "Syriana" dazed, confused and troubled. These stories seemingly have no end.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 3.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Syriana," with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Mazhar Munir, Tim Blake Nelson, Amanda Peet, Christopher Plummer, Alexander Siddig. Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, suggested by the book "See No Evil" by Robert Baer. 126 minutes. Rated R for violence and language. Several theaters.