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George Clooney has his own take on Syriana, the hot potato he executive-produced and in which he stars as Bob Barnes, a CIA agent caught in the twisting, toxic tentacles of Big Oil: “It’s going to get us in a lot of trouble.” Let’s hope so. Why toss a political grenade into the multiplex if you don’t expect scorched earth? Syriana, written and directed in a fever of risk-taking provocation by Stephen Gaghan, takes off with the lightning speed of a thriller, the gonzo force of frontline journalism and the emotional wallop of a drama that puts a human face on shocking statistics. Global oil corruption has seeped into every facet of our lives, from the collusion of White House and business interests in the Persian Gulf to the financial squeeze we all feel just pumping gas. No dry civics lesson, this fighting-mad film isn’t just hot, it’s incendiary. And no one gets off the hook. You see it with the exhilarating feeling that a movie can make a difference.

The first surprise is Clooney himself. Bearded and bloated from the thirty-five pounds he packed on to play Barnes, he gives us a ground soldier who’s been used and used up by the CIA’s war on Middle East terrorism. Here is a man, struggling to put his son through college, who can order the assassination of Prince Nasir (the superb Alexander Siddig) for favoring China over the U.S. in an oil deal (“Hit him with a truck going fifty miles per hour”), stand up to fingernail-yanking torture from former operatives and still be amazed when the Firm plays him for a patsy. This is the best acting Clooney has ever done — he’s hypnotic, haunting and quietly devastating.

See No Evil, the 2002 memoir by former CIA operative Robert Baer, serves as the film’s starting point. In the manner of his Oscar-winning script for Traffic — the drug trade expose given a documentary feel by director Steven Soderbergh that Syriana emulates — Gaghan casts his net wide through interlocking stories. Matt Damon gives a whiplash performance as energy analyst Bryan Woodman, willing to use the accidental death of his son in the house of Prince Nasir for his own gain. He tells his horrified wife (Amanda Peet) that working for Nasir will be like having their own personal ATM. For Washington lawyer Bennett Holiday (the reliably brilliant Jeffrey Wright), success means helping his boss (Christopher Plummer, doing patrician hauteur to a turn) finesse a merger between two Texas oil companies, the giant Connex and the smaller Killen, run by Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper). Pope’s wingman Danny Dalton, played with razor-edge timing by Tim Blake Nelson, one-ups the “Greed is good” speech from Wall Street by extolling the “safe and warm” qualities of corruption.

Gaghan is in top form, mixing potent writing with images that tear at the heart, such as the sight at the madrassa of a Pakistani migrant worker (Mazhar Munir) — both he and his father are laid off by Connex after Nasir’s deal with the Chinese — being persuasively indoctrinated into Islamic fundamentalism. Syriana is a tough nut that demands attention, refuses to ingratiate and keeps throwing curves — Barnes finding his moral center, Holiday losing his. It’s the kind of give-’em-hell filmmaking that Hollywood left for dead, the kind that matters. Clooney says his company will produce more movies like Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana. Godspeed.

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