Year: 2006
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Producer: George Clooney/Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Stephen Gaghan
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, Tim Blake Nelson
Robert Altman was famous for inventing the overstuffed cast with Nashville (1975). It's a device that's been used ever since to varying degrees of success. Tarantino populated Pulp Fiction with just enough disparate characters with lives that cross for it to work.

Love, Actually was fluffy and entertaining but was as interested in being a roll call for Britain's most popular actors as it was in being coherent. Not even Altman himself gets it right when he revisits the territory - Gosford Park was crammed with so many famous faces it was nearly impossible to keep up with it all.

The ensemble worked to great effect in Gaghan's last creation, the Steven Soderbergh-directed Traffic. The script wove three disparate stories from very different fronts of America's War on Drugs, and the realistic and human characters made it engaging for fans of both drama and world affairs.

Turning his pen from drugs to oil- sorry... 'security', Gaghan brings us Syriana, an even more searing account of geopolitics that shuffles you into the highest echelons of some very powerful fraternities and uses hushed tones to show you snippets of what goes on.

A CIA operative and Middle East specialist who's seen better days (Clooney, looking so portly and put-upon it took a back operation to get him back to normal), an energy industry player on he cusp of big things if he can just forge the right contacts (Damon), a regulator poring over a massive oil merger (Wright) and a young Muslim man increasingly marginalised by unimagined economic forces (Munir) seem to have little to do with each other at first.

But through their lives, we're given an ephemeral glimpse into how power, money, oil, corruption, business and politics combine - and sometimes collide.

A lot of critics in the US have panned Syriana for being too confusing. In interviews, Gaghan's said it was completely intentional. The global oil business is too cross-connected and twisted into shards for anyone to fully grasp - even the people who run it. A lot of moviegoers will dislike it for the same reason. As much as people bag formulaic studio movies that tie everything up neatly, there's a reason so many movies are like it - anything less is inherently unsatisfying.

Although it's quite talky, Syriana contains little exposition. The talk we see consists of whispers across a darkened briefing room, deal-making at rich playgrounds or second hand mumbles in resplendent palaces, and it does little to fill you in. There's no simple theorem for their world, so the characters can't grasp it all and Gaghan makes sure you can't either.

So if you can swallow your desire for the hero to get the girl and ride off in to the sunset, it's the stuff conspiracy theories are made of. Anyone interested in oil, politics and big business will feel that instinctive thrill of getting a special glimpse behind the window dressing of the political spin the halls of power usually feeds the masses.

Clooney and Damon lead a troupe of performers at the peak of their occupation. Damon in particular does 'natural' brilliantly, and the maturity and sharpness of the script encourages similar skill out of everyone involved.

Gaghan also wields his camera much like Meirelles did in The Constant Gardener, letting the actors stage the scene and keeping up with them, making it easy to believe the whole thing is a documentary on the oil business.

Like all movies should be, Syriana is about people. In this case, they're all grappling to make sense of their little role in one of human history's darkest and most complicated chapters, and when you hear Gaghan say in interviews he doesn't make political movies you can almost believe him.

But if he truly believes it, the real power behind Syriana must be a complete fluke. For Gaghan to say he doesn't make political films is like Kubrick coming back from the dead to say he only ever made accessible romantic comedies.

He may be more interested in the characters (and his skill at creating them in both Traffic and Syriana bears this claim out), but Syriana is as political a film as you'll see all year. It's not scared to skirt the truth, and the result is explosive.

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