SOURCE - filmforce The one-word description I received by a colleague about Stephen Gaghan's deconstruction of Middle Eastern politics Syriana was "educational," and coming out of the film I wish I disagreed, because that hardly seems a compliment in an era when entertainment feels like it should be anything but. But as a dissertation on American foreign policy, much less the explosive cultural and political clashes currently going on in that region of the world, the new film really seems more to be preaching to the converted than educating the uninformed. Because there are few who enter this movie (at least among those who already know what it's about) who will not already have their minds made up about the situation, both on celluloid and in real-life - which makes for a dubious recommendation depending on which side of the debate your disposition falls. Much like Gaghan's last noteworthy cinematic effort Traffic, Syriana is an ensemble effort in which several actors stand out - this time including George Clooney, Matt Damon and Jeffrey Wright - but none supersede the significance of the material itself. Clooney plays Bob Barnes, a veteran CIA agent whose dedication to preserving the peace has after many years become a liability rather than an asset; he issues memos about lost warheads like they're press releases, leading his bosses to sacrifice him on the court of public opinion as a double-dealing zealot. Simultaneously, a father and son team of migrant workers from Pakistan are laid off from their jobs, and the younger of the two finds solace in a local temple, where he receives respect and dignity he did not enjoy underneath his American bosses' au••••es. Meanwhile, Bryan Woodman (Damon) is a consultant at an energy trading company who enters a Faustian pact with reform-minded Middle Eastern Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) when his son dies in a tragic accident; despite his wife's reservations, Bryan soon becomes an instrument in the young prince's ascension to his father's throne. Back in the states, ambitious attorney Bennett Holiday (Wright) investigates the paper trail of a merger between the Texas energy giant Connex and a smaller oil company named Killen; his intent is not to squelch the deal but to defuse the partnership, allowing the government to "intercede" and broker a new deal that meets with their approval (and pocketbooks). While the movie possesses many admirable qualities, not the least of which being intellectually ambitious, the whole affair does indeed feel "educational," and ultimately earns another dubious adjective, "bloodless." The cast isn't comprised of characters with whom I sympathize deeply, even if I can appreciate their individual problems: Clooney's Barnes is practically a super-patriot in today's climate of political hucksters, so his plight feels almost rhetorically painful when his superiors cast him out of the CIA's inner circle; Damon's damaged father clings desperately to an ideal that will likely never be realized, hoping to redeem the loss of his son; and Wright's lawyer is savvy enough to recognize what part he plays in the grand scheme of a Washington shell game, eventually acquiescing to the corruption not so much out of personal weakness as recognition that 'winners' and 'losers' are the product of properly-spun P.R. But these are intellectual exercises, not emotional ones; so even though children die, lives are wrecked and careers forged in the fires of hell, there's little to grasp on a human level without understand the rich, complex and frequently confusing politics (both literal and metaphorical) of the piece. Like a version of Traffic stuck in rush hour rather than recounted in retrospect, Syriana's deep-rooted cynicism is palpable and pervasive, calcifying the conflicts as they happen rather than allowing for the possibility of hope. While a legitimate observation could be made that this film comes into existence at a time when the only effective argument is the one offered the loudest (particularly now when the national pendulum has swung seemingly irrevocably to the political right), the drug trade has been a problem for decades now and Traffic's optimistic but utterly realistic resolution provides just enough uplift to leave the audience with a feeling that things might change; here, the message that reverberates into the darkness is one of abject surrender - they are winning because they fight dirty and make no apologies for it, so we had better do the same. Overall, however, Syriana may in fact be one of the year's best films; there are few movies released by major studios these days possessed with as much intelligence and purpose as Gaghan's. But "smart" and "satisfying" are two completely different things, particularly when politics are concerned, so if you're already entrenched in the filmmakers' camp you will naturally be more susceptible to the movie's message. If not, who knows? I guess the worst thing that can be said about this big-budget polemic is that you may well learn something while watching it; for some that's a recommendation and for others a reason to avoid it, but in a field typically dominated by efforts that ought wear the cinematic equivalent of a dunce cap, Syriana issues a manifesto that not only deserves but absolutely needs to be witnessed, even if you prefer entertainment to education. ____________________________________________ I'm definatly going to see this. Traffic was dope, and this should be to.