PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2006, 12:00am

Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Mazhar Munir

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Category: IIB

Despite its star-studded cast, Syriana begins with not a major name in sight. In its pre-credit sequence, a crowd of Indians and Pakistanis shiver and shuffle in the early morning fog on a desert highway, waiting - and then struggling - for a place on buses that will bring these migrant labourers to yet another day at an oilfield.

With this, director Stephen Gaghan illustrates the film's tagline: 'Everything is connected'. With multiple narratives, he succeeds in illustrating complex webs of deception, desperation and death that spawned a culture of palace coups and disenchantment in the Middle East.

Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir) is laid off by Texas energy company Connex when it loses its drilling rights to Chinese rivals, thanks to young, progressive Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig). Anger against his former employer and abuse by police push the young man towards religious fundamentalists.

At the other end, is lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), who is involved in Connex's planned merger with a small company that has acquired rights - possibly illegally - to Kazakh oilfields. His meek exterior belies a dogged ambition to reach the top - even if it means betrayal of associates and even his own values.

Shady political manoeuvres are embodied in the trials and tribulations of CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney). After an arms-deal gone awry, he's sent on what's to be his last mission: to assassinate Nasir - who's trying to implement a reformist agenda with the advice of analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) - and replace him with a more co-operative regime.

With a tight script and an urgent visual style, Syriana examines the basis of the so-called Pax Americana. At one stage, a besieged oilman rails that corruption 'is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm ... corruption is why we win'.

Not that Syriana isn't without flaws. Although politically liberal, it thrives on gung-ho masculinity. The most significant (and almost the only) woman in the film, Woodman's wife (Amanda Peet), serves only as a mirror in which he measures his conscience.

The film fails to successfully unravel the complex affairs of the states being meddled with. As Woodman tells the playboy Nasir: 'We think a hundred years ago you were living out here in tents in the desert chopping each other's heads off, and that's exactly where you're going to be in another hundred.'

Rather rich, given that it is, arguably, the cynical west that has pushed the region to the brink.

Syriana opens today