Dir/scr: Stephen Gaghan. US. 2005. 123mins.

Writer-director Stephen Gaghan'sSyrianasets out to do for the global oil industry what Steven Soderbergh'sTraffic - which Gaghanscripted - did for the international drug trade. But while Traffic managed to mix affecting drama with its big picturegeopolitics, Gaghan's provocative new study worksbetter as a stimulant for political debate than as the thriller it's billed tobe.

That might be enough toattract a core audience of politically aware viewers, but Syriana seem unlikely, even withGeorge Clooney and Matt Damon heading its ensemble cast, to draw mainstreammoviegoers in sufficient numbers to justify (commercially at any rate) itsreported $50m budget.

Worldwide distributor Warnergives the Participant/Section Eight production a limited US opening this weekand will widen the release early next month. Part of Warner's domestic taskwill be to sell the film in the wake of other recent releases with political orMiddle East-related content, among them Jarheadand Warner Independent's Good Night, AndGood Luck, which has Clooney directing and co-starring.

The film will open in manyinternational territories early next year, and outside the domestic market itscritical view of US foreign policy might prove more widely appealing. Clooneyand Damon, whose involvement is underplayed in the US marketing campaign, couldalso be bigger assets internationally (last year, they helped Ocean's 12 gross nearly twice as muchoverseas as at home).

'Suggested' by former CIA agentRobert Baer's non-fiction book See NoEvil, Gaghan's script has a similar structure tohis Traffic screenplay (for which hewon an Oscar), with multiple storylines set in far flung locations and frequentcuts from one plot thread to another.

Clooney's Bob Barnes (acharacter loosely based on Baer) is a veteran CIA agent first seen plying hisdangerous trade in Tehran. When he returns to the US, Barnes is first promiseda desk job but then sent by his out-of-touch bosses on one last mission in theMiddle East.

In the US, the film followsan ambitious Washington attorney (Wright) looking into the corrupt dealingsbehind the merger of two oil companies. In Europe, it focuses on a risingenergy business analyst (Damon), who finds that a family tragedy leads tolucrative business ties in an (unidentified) oil-producing Persian Gulfcountry.

In that country, areform-minded Arab prince (Siddig, from Kingdom Of Heaven) is trying to improvehis people's lot by freeing the nation from its ties to US oil concerns. And inthe country's vast oil fields, a downtrodden migrant labourer (British TV actorMunir) is becoming radicalised in an Islamic school.

Gaghan uses the stories and characters to touch on a rangeof issues, including race, class, immigration and religion. He quite skilfullyreveals the links between the personal and the political, showing, in the wordsof one of the movies marketing taglines, that 'everything is connected.'

The film is certainly not aparty political rant (though a character who seems tobe based on Condoleezza Rice does make a brief appearance and the ties betweenoil men and politicians inevitably bring the Bush family to mind).

Rather, Gaghanis most interested in mapping the uneasy symbiosis between the US and theoil-rich Arab world (the film's rather obscure title is apparently a term usedin Washington to describe a hypothetical re-shaping of the Middle East). Thevillains of the piece are not so much the politicians as the CIA, big businessand corrupt Middle Eastern monarchies.

The film suffers from thefact that the oil business is not as inherently dramatic as the drugs business,though Gaghan attempts to give the story addedurgency by shooting many sequences in a hand-held documentary style.

The biggest problem, though,is that Syrianasimply has too many story threads, and several of them are tricky to follow.Moviegoers are likely to find themselves struggling to keep track and unable toget emotionally involved in any particular thread or character. The threads docome together in the film's last half hour, but the emotional pay-off is fairlymeager.

The structure keeps thespotlight from resting for long on any of the individual performances, thoughClooney and Damon do come to the fore in the final act. With his shaggy beardand sagging stomach, Clooney's Barnes is nicely world-weary, though thecharacter's appearance might take something away from the star's usual pullingpower.

Elsewhere in the cast,Wright (from Broken Flowers) isimpressively intense, Cooper (Adaptation)is suitably slimy as an oil company chief and Munirhumanises his suicide bomber character.

Production companies
Warner Bros Pictures
Participant Productions
Section Eight

US distribution
Warner Bros

International distribution
Warner Bros

Executive producers
George Clooney
Steven Soderbergh
Ben Cosgrove
Jeff Skoll

Jennifer Fox
Michael Nozik
Georgia Kacandes

Robert Elswit

Production design
Dan Weil

Tim Squyres

Alexandre Desplat

Main cast
George Clooney
Matt Damon
Jeffrey Wright
Chris Cooper
William Hurt
Mazhar Munir
Tim Blake Nelson
Amanda Peet
Christopher Plummer
Alexander Siddig