Cinema Signal:

See No Evil:
The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism
by Robert Baer

. "Syriana"

Writer-director Stephen Gaghan ("Traffic" screenplay) rounds up his usual suspects of real-life politically active actors for a multi-spiked stew of unsavory morality in the oil industry. He pulls it off with an injection of journalistic reality as he traces separate but thematically related story lines. You're in for intrigues, betrayals, corruption, politics and, at least one attempt to assassinate. The idea is to show us what we overpay for.

The center of the Washington shenanigans revolves around a merger between giant corporation Connex, headed by a man who proves himself fearless and cunning at the heights of global competition (Christopher Plummer) and the smaller target company, Killen (pronounced Kil-leen) run by Jimmy Pope (a highly fueled Chris Cooper). Washington attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is assigned to somehow balance an attack on Killen over its Kazakhstan operation against the ultimate success of the merger, a challenging plotline mired in high-stakes complexity and manipulation.

For this more contemporary expos‚ than "Good Night, and Good Luck,", George Clooney is bearded and well-fed Bob Barnes (packed with 35 pounds above his normal weight), a CIA case officer closely involved in the global oil trade and its swamp of payoffs, political agendas and Washington-to-Beirut conspiracies. Though his idealism inspires our sympathy, it gets strained when he orders the death of a sheikdom prince (Alexander Siddig) for selling out to the Chinese in an oil deal. Unfortunately for him, however, this is a place where allegiances shift like wind-driven sand dunes, and he allows his eagerness for revenge to swallow up his spy craft judgement. The result is severe, including the loss of support by his agency, now very eager to distance itself from international embarrassment.

Energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) works the problem from another direction but he's shaken to his core when his young son is accidentally electrocuted in Prince Nasir's swimming pool. Deeply shamed, the Prince attempts to redeem himself with an offer too generous for Woodman to refuse, which reviles his wife Julie (Amanda Peet), a mother crippled with grief.

Playing Pope's Washington lobbyist is Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson in a suit) who makes a case for the sweetness of corruption. The slickness of his diatribe is studiously illogical but might just accurately reflect thinking on the hill, which it's surely intended, cynically and satirically, to do.

Intrigues at home are paralleled by the contest going on in the kingdom between the aging Emir's two sons for the inheritance of the crown. One is cultured and fair, the other evil and "not fit to run a brothel," in the words of the more civilized sibling.

Finally, there's a subplot weaving its way through the sophisticated intrigues that's designed to bring out the social consequences of the Chinese oil decision. Father and son laborers in the Emir's oil company are laid off from their jobs with threats instead of counsel. We follow the unpromising realities of their unemployment while the son is nurtured by a terrorist scout for a job with a fatal finality.

As though this stakes-playing on a global level isn't complex enough, Gaghan repeatedly cuts into ongoing scenes to put us on the edges of understanding. As each storyline is advanced, comprehension builds but, artful though the device is, it's not fun having to work so hard to grasp the smokescreens and strategies. The obscurity of the title is, itself, a warning.

This picture of spycraft, intrigue and lack of restraint in the corridors of power is a high-paced adaptation from Robert Baer's book with no fat or kindness on its activist bones. The situation is presented vividly and credibly -- all the more dispiriting for rubbing our noses in our helplessness to reform entrenched systems any time soon. But, hey, maybe someone with his hands on the levers of governmental ethics is listening.

Those who love the expose' of power and corruption should erect a statue to Clooney for using his celebrity influence to promote bold political themes without commercial adornments. This film will speak volumes to those who are ready to brave its demands.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Matt Damon and George Clooney
On a mission of revenge and fatality

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