Nothing if not ambitious, Syriana sets out to explain problems in the Middle East in terms of grand themes: oil interests, political and economic dilemmas, and most important, the collision of cultures. But despite an impeccable cast and an articulate script that brandishes its issues, the film has the feel of a lecture that is dutiful and shrill at the same time.

The proposed merger of two oil giants, Connex and Killen, sets off what the film presents as a chain of events. Immigrant Pakistani oil field workers in an unnamed Arab country lose their jobs. Unemployed and with no prospects, Wasim (Mazhar Munir) turns to militant Islam. Countering the terrorists is undercover CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney). Posing as an arms dealer, he watches helplessly as a stolen Stinger missile disappears into the black market.

Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an American financial analyst based in Geneva, uses a personal tragedy to forge a business deal with Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig). Both seem to want political and social reform, but realize the strategic value of oil fields now controlled by Nasir's father, the emir. Back in Washington, attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) investigates the proposed merger, uncovering corruption in the oil industry as well as the federal government. The plot strands ultimately converge in a violent confrontation.

Syriana seems more complicated than it really is, in part because writer (Traffic) and director (Abandon) Stephen Gaghan concocts elaborate conspiracy theories for events that have much more mundane causes. Forcing connections among characters reveals the faulty logic underlying the story. Does Wasim become a suicide bomber because a Washington lawyer lies about a business deal?

Gaghan's trick as a screenwriter is to stop scenes before they are finished, making viewers puzzle out transitions and endings for themselves. As a director, he leans on suspense tactics even when his scenes have no real tension in them. Poor Christopher Plummer, playing an old-money lawyer, has to stalk through dark rooms with a gun in his hand to get an invitation to a coffee-shop meeting.
Gaghan the writer fills out his American characters with flashes of individuality, but his director side has Jeffrey Wright underplay his role too much. Clooney, adopting a resolutely hangdog expression, is given the cleanest character in the movie, but also the most sentimental. By emphasizing his pure motives, the movie essentially neuters one of film's most appealing personalities. Damon has one strong scene where he questions a prince's attitude; otherwise, he is just there to fill in background, deliver statistics, and explain the obvious.

Gaghan is on much shakier ground when it comes to the characters in the Middle East, in particular the suicide bombers, who are presented as little more than deprived and ignorant.

Combine grandiose writing and insistent directing, and you get a film that pretends to tell you more than it does. Syriana is made up of reams of exposition, little of which is actually useful, some showboating incidents, and sins that have little shock value-unless you are surprised to learn that big business can be corrupt, that governments bend rules to help money interests, and that innocent lives can be lost in conflict. It's a reassuring salve to liberal consciences; unfortunately, they're not the ones who need persuading.

-Daniel Eagan