[box cover]

Syriana

If you want to deduce just how far George Clooney's career has progressed since his 1994 breakout on NBC-TV's "ER," look no further than his comments about being overlooked for People magazine's 2006 "Sexiest Man Alive" cover story — "I'm at that age where I'm looking for a very specific sexiest man list," he said. "Like, 'Sexiest Former Batmen who were also on a hospital show.'" Clooney also invoked People and his oft-derided turn in 1997's Batman & Robin when he picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Stephen Gaghan's Syriana (2005), making it clear that, while he's willing to look back at the days when he was tagged as Hollywood's A-number-one hunk, he's glad to leave it behind. In fact, his turn as the Caped Crusader remains his one career misstep, and thanks to collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, and Steven Soderbergh, Clooney has staked out some remarkable cinematic turf as an actor, producer, and director, downplaying his natural charisma in order to become the thinking-man's Hollywood star. His Teflon-coated charm makes him one of the few outspoken liberals in Tinseltown who escapes knee-jerk cultural backlash, and he's the only man alive who could star in a creditable remake of North by Northwest. And yet, Clooney masked his good looks in his two Oscar-nominated pictures of 2005, donning horn-rimmed glasses in Good Night, and Good Luck, and putting on 35 lbs. and a beard for his role as a CIA operative in Syriana.

Sourced from the book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism by Robert Baer, writer-director Stephen Gaghan's Syriana covers several intersecting stories, all centered around the American oil industry and Middle Eastern politics. The intrigue begins as American energy giant Connex loses a natural gas contract in the Persian Gulf to a Chinese consortium, while the smaller Killen corporation wins a prized contract to access untapped oil fields in Kazakhstan. The turn of events causes both companies to plan a merger, but Connnex's lead attorney Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) learns that the Justice Department plans to investigate the Killen contract, and he assigns attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) to learn everything he can before they do. Meanwhile, Geneva-based energy trader Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) develops an uneasy alliance with Nasir al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), the scion of a wealthy Arab family that controls the valuable natural gas fields. However, Nasir has been marked for assassination by the CIA, who send operative Bob Barnes (Clooney) into Lebanon to set up a hit. But after Barnes's op is burned and he's abandoned by the agency, he digs deeper into the agency's "lethal finding" on Nasir, traces it back to the Connex/Killen merger, and tries to thwart the prince's assassination.

*          *          *

At first, the sprawling, multi-layered plot of Syriana suggests that it was adapted from a novel that would make a suitable doorstop, but instead it was written by director Stephen Gaghan, who based much of his work on interviews with real-life CIA operative Robert Baer. The narrative can be challenging at times, but thanks to the film's well-defined characters and swift pacing, it never becomes belabored or dull. That Gaghan wrote Traffic (2000), and that Steven Soderbergh serves as an executive producer here, should give viewers a clue what to expect going in — Syriana is a suitable bookend to Soderbergh's film as an examination of American power in an international context, exchanging energy for drugs, but still covering several stories from the perspective of politicians, capitalists, and those who are merely caught up in a struggle they don't entirely comprehend. The ensemble work suits all of the actors involved, particularly George Clooney, even though Bob Barnes' gift for covert work remains largely a matter of suggestion — as one of the CIA's ask-no-questions foot-soldiers, he's both a political naïf and a ticking time-bomb, particularly when we realize that the agency is more concerned about putting the right spin on an operation rather than supporting those who bring them valuable human intel. The film's location shooting (much of it in Morocco) underscores its credibility, and while the story itself is a matter of fiction, it addresses the realpolitik of the post-Cold War era, where wars and rumors of wars ensure that oil-producing countries will squander their resources to the West rather than developing real governments and real economies. Or, as Bob Barnes might simply say, "It's complicated."

Warner Home Video's DVD release of Syriana offers a pristine anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include two featurettes, "A Conversation with George Clooney" (9 min.) and "Make a Change, Make a Difference" with input from cast and crew (11 min.). Also on board are three deleted scenes with a "play all" option and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—JJB



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