Plot-Weaving Clinic

Complex and intricate, 'Syriana' is well worth two-plus hours of your life

I remember a few years ago thinking that Alexander Siddig (best known as Dr. Bashir in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) would never get a lead role, because his particular look is way too unpopular. That's just sad, because he's an excellent and charismatic actor, and while we now make some small space for black and east Asian actors as stars, it will probably be a while before anyone who looks vaguely Middle Eastern gets to karate chop a bad guy while para-gliding on a sea of bikini models.

However, while he doesn't have the lead role in Syriana, that's only because there is no lead role in this intricate political thriller. The film tells five seemingly disparate stories, and then very slowly weaves them together into a seamless whole. That's a lot harder than it sounds; complex films tend to have gaps or to rely on plot contrivances that seem as artificial as a Twinkie lying on Pamela Anderson's chest.

In Syriana, though, the end result makes perfect sense, has no holes and is so completely plausible that you'll think you were watching a documentary. Since practically everything that occurs after the first 40 seconds is a plot twist, I can't really talk about it without spoiling some stuff, so if you hate spoilers, just don't read the part where I mention that Kevin Costner really is the Russian spy. I mean the part where I talk about the plot.

In bringing the story to life, Siddig is joined by George Clooney, who made himself fat and ugly for the role, even though no one will praise him the way they did when Charlize Theron did it for Monster because, let's face it, Clooney just was never as pretty as Charlize Theron. Matt Damon and the incomparable Jeffrey Wright round out the lead cast, with a supporting list that includes such luminaries as Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer and 60 people whose names are not "Chris."

Siddig plays the heir-apparent to an fictional, oil-rich nation somewhere in the Persian Gulf. While he plots to make sure that he, and not his dissolute brother, take the throne, an assets manager (Matt Damon) tries to get close to him, succeeding only when a horrible tragedy occurs.

After that, the two of them try to steer Fictional Countrystan toward something like prosperity and democracy. Unfortunately, a consortium of oil companies seems to have other plans. Their leaders are also members of the secretive Committee to Liberate Iran's People and, While We're at It, Her Vast Fields of Oil. But they're being investigated by the United States Justice Department, which doesn't really want to stop their nefarious plans, but has to put on some kind of show since the oil companies in question are more corrupt than a 10-day-old piece of cheese that's been etched with Karl Rove's personal diary.

Also meanwhile, a CIA agent (the newly fat version of George Clooney) is being enlisted to kill people who are either allied with terrorism, or who just want to get a fair price for some oil, which is basically the same thing. And in yet another meanwhile, some workers who are downsized when two oil companies merge decide that maybe it would be a good idea to join a terrorist cell, since not much else is happening in their lives, and also they hate our freedoms, if those freedoms include the freedom to steal their livelihood and force them into a life of penury.

But for all this, writer/director Stephen Gaghan doesn't make the mistake of letting the politics bog down the thrills. The few cases where characters make speeches actually further the plot. When the various sides get their moments to pontificate, it has a lot more to do with building character and suspense than with ramming a political agenda into the film.

Which is not to say that Syriana is perfect. This is Gaghan's first film, not counting the direct-to-thrift-store Katie Holmes' vehicle Abandon, and he makes a few rookie mistakes. First off, Jeffrey Wright's really stunning acting abilities probably impressed Gaghan too much, because he adds in an unnecessary story about Wright's alcoholic father that does nothing for the plot and doesn't really add to the character.

Second, he shoots a lot of the interiors with a bluish tint, and that's just been done to death and has come to feel tremendously artificial. A slightly warmer lighting would have made the handheld photography appear a little more natural, which would have worked for the general feel of the film.

Finally, there's so much plot to spin out that the film isn't as tense as it should be. It just takes a long time for the central human conflict to arise, and while the final sequences are taut, getting there isn't as thrilling as it could be.

Though it's not boring, either, and it's well worth the trip. Plus, his exterior shots all look great. Gaghan and cinematographer Robert Elswit (Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia, Boogie Nights) favor a hazy, dusty look that captures a certain sweaty uncertainty. It's a look that manages to enhance the mood without drawing too much attention to itself, which is important in a film as rich in information as Syriana.

So if your butt can take 2 hours and 6 minutes of tremendous complexity, and you like films that don't pretend their audiences are just stopping off on the way home from a special-ed class, Syriana may give you the intellectual puzzles, punch-in-the-gut acting and delayed-gratification thrills you're looking for.