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Syriana

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I’m no dummy. I hold a college degree. I read the newspaper every day. I passed a “Jeopardy!” audition, for crying out loud. Yet I watched every single minute of “Syriana” and came out of it with nothing more than a foggy notion of what it was about.

Oh, I know what it’s “about,” I guess. It’s about the oil industry. But the plot is so labyrinthine, the characters so numerous, the connections so fleetingly explained, that constant vigilance is required if one expects to have even a basic grasp of what’s going on. You go out for popcorn and you’re doomed. This movie shouldn’t come with a rating, it should come with a syllabus.

Is this a flaw? Not necessarily. In chatting with others who saw the film the same time I did, I find that it IS possible to understand exactly what’s going on, because some of my colleagues did. So apparently it’s not the movie’s fault that I couldn’t follow it; it’s mine.

It was written and directed by Stephan Gaghan, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for “Traffic,” a film to which “Syriana” is easily compared. Where “Traffic” examines the war on drugs from a variety of angles, “Syriana” does the same with the oil industry. “Syriana” offers no exposition. We are dropped into each scene cold and expected to catch up by paying attention. We are given brief glimpses of a few characters’ personal lives — sometimes so brief and obligatory they are laughable — but mostly the focus is on their work. In fact, I can offer the same criticism of “Syriana” that I had for “Traffic”: There is no reason to feel attached or relate to any of these people. It all feels so impersonal.

At the center are two American oil companies, Connex and Killen, that wish to merge. The deal is being overseen by the U.S. Attorney’s office, represented by Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright). There seems to be something fishy about the merger, but corruption, we are told, is standard in the oil industry.

The spokes on the story’s hub include Matt Damon as an energy analyst named Bryan Woodman who lives in Switzerland and has a working relationship with Iran’s Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), who may one day be the emir; George Clooney as a CIA operative who does a good deal of top-secret and shady work for the U.S. government; Chris Cooper as the head of Killen; and Christopher Plummer as Bennett Holiday’s superior. For good measure, there are Pakistani working-class men who lose their jobs because of Connex and subsequently turn to radical Islam fundamentalism.

The central question is whether the Connex/Killen merger is illegal — the resulting company would be the 23rd largest economy in the world — and whether it matters if it is. The film is a political thriller, and a thick, beefy one at that, but it’s hard to be thrilled when you don’t understand why anything is happening.

I’m giving the film a “recommended” grade because it’s well-shot and convincingly acted, and because I think there are things lurking in it that would emerge with a second viewing. Those who have lavished great praise on the film either were among my colleagues who managed to grasp it all on the first try, or else they’re pretending to get it because they don’t want to look stupid. Me, I have no problem looking stupid: I have no idea what’s going on in this movie.

B- (2 hrs., 6 min.; R, a smattering of harsh profanity, some strong violence, including torture.)

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