(Correction: Because of a reporting error, the Dec. 9 film review of ''Syriana" misspelled the surname of actor Alexander Siddig.)
Stephen Gaghan's ''Syriana" flies into theaters praised as a rarity: Hollywood doesn't make movies like this anymore. By ''like this," those of us who appreciate Gaghan's movie mean ''intelligent," ''political," ''incensed," ''timely," and ''appropriately cynical." And by ''anymore," we mean since the 1970s. ''Syriana" is about something very specific -- oil. Which is to say that actually it's about everything.
This was also true of Steven Soderbergh's drug saga, ''Traffic," which Gaghan wrote as well. ''Syriana," loosely based on former CIA agent Robert Baer's 2002 memoir ''See No Evil," assumes the same storytelling model as ''Traffic," only more ambitiously, with individual stories woven into a larger thesis. This new film also has a super-size wanderlust: The film is set in Geneva, the Persian Gulf, the Department of Justice, Texas ranches, the French Riviera, the Maryland suburbs, and Gaghan's unnamed Persian Gulf emirate.
The leadership of that country is yet to be determined. The current emir has two sons groomed to succeed him as king. One, Meshal (Akbar Kurtha), is a priss and a yes man. The other, Nasir (Alexander Saddig), is a more natural-born leader who's repulsed by his family's obeisance to America and its wishes for the country's natural gas. He wants to right his nation's squandered promise and be a reformer.
As a start, Nasir has just kicked out the Americans and handed over the drilling rights to a Chinese company, which leaves the previous drillers, a Houston outfit called Connex, in a fix. Connex decides it's going to merge with Killen, a smaller Texas oil company, which Connex finds attractive because it's about to start drilling for oil in Kazakhstan. Washington has to approve the merger, and to ensure that it goes smoothly the companies hire an intimidating D.C. law firm to find and fix any potential roadblocks. The job falls to a taciturn lawyer named Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright). We're told what Bennett might be capable of when Christopher Plummer, haughty as ever playing Bennett's boss, says that he might be a lion who's been mistaken for a lamb.
''Syriana" is big on lambs, ideally of the sacrificial sort -- even when they look like teddy bears, as a tubby and grizzled George Clooney does. He plays Bob Barnes, a loyal veteran CIA agent whose latest assignment involves arranging a pivotal assassination.
As is perhaps evident, ''Syriana" is a crowded movie. Bob is a fascinating character, but his development suffers at the hands of the greater story. The film has another intriguing plot involving Wasim (Mazhar Munir), a Pakistani kid, left idle and facing deportation from the Gulf after he's laid off from the drilling fields when the Chinese step into the picture. Unmoored and uncertain, he's seduced by the prospect of terrorism.
Gaghan's script practically chokes on people, like Wasim, who never emerge as complete characters. Everyone represents a position. The movie might have worked even better had it been a miniseries that could have more deeply developed the folks caught in the story's gears. Gaghan is thinking globally, yet not acting locally enough.
Take the Woodmans, an American couple, played by Matt Damon and Amanda Peet, living in Geneva. Their young son drowns at a party for the emir, and this entire area of ''Syriana" is meant to function as its emotional compass. Damon's character, Bryan, winds up using the child's death to win business with Nasir, but when the movie's over, you come to feel that the Woodman family is here only to yank our heartstrings.
Elsewhere, Gaghan tries to find a tie that binds the men in the film and comes up with fractured father-son relations, meant, presumably, to resonate all the way to the current Bush White House. In the film's hokiest such relationship, Bennett can't get through his front door without climbing over his drunk daddy.
Still, in its seriousness, ''Syriana" has an absorbing, ominous roundness that plays even better with a second viewing. The plots come, rather inexorably, to a head. These events aren't presented as the side effects of paranoia. They ring scarily true. If the film isn't fair (it leans left, and the oil people are often comically heartless), it does achieve a kind of balance. Gaghan has written the baddies so that their righteousness isn't hollow. The runaway corruption (the Oil Man of the Year awards!) almost makes sense.
In fact, the most disturbing quality of ''Syriana" is how rational it seems. This, alas, is the way it is, Gaghan seems to be saying. His aim is true, but he seems defeated long before he gets riled up. In this sense, ''Syriana" has a backhanded power. Gaghan knows it's only a movie, and he seems unhappily resigned to the idea that it can't be more.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.