A politically charged epic about the state of the oil industry in the hands of those personally involved in and affected by it.A politically charged epic about the state of the oil industry in the hands of those personally involved in and affected by it.A politically charged epic about the state of the oil industry in the hands of those personally involved in and affected by it.
This technique to coordinate a huge ensemble of captivating character actors woven tightly together in a complex story is helped enormously by Robert Elswit's ever-moving camera shots as visually and sound edited by Tim Squyres, who had some experience with overlapping dialog and movement in a more literal upstairs/downstairs on Robert Altman's "Gosford Park." Alexandre Desplat's music adds to the tense mood.
The variegation that Gaghan presents is almost staggering, even more ethically complicated than a Graham Greene Cold War noir. This is the first film I've seen that illustrates the diversity of clashing Islamic cultures and interests, despite that I couldn't keep their interests or motives all quite straight. Though the English subtitles (which are commendably outlined in black for unusual legibility) wipe out some of the distinctions, we can infer that Iranians are speaking Farsi, Pakistanis' Urdu and others speaking Arabic, all with varying fluency and mutual cultural comprehension, let alone manipulators who can speak anything besides their native tongues. We've seen immigrants and guest workers in films critical of Western countries, but not the resentment-brewing conditions of badly treated non-citizens in the oil-rich Persian Gulf states, like the fictional one here which looks a lot like Dubai or Brunei, where clusters of modern skyscrapers contrast with Bedouin goat herders. It does help for background on the fascinating side plot of the radicalized young Arabs to see "Paradise Now" about Palestinian terrorists to explain particular details of their training.
While each character is specifically set within a believable home and family setting, some are painted with too easy and broad strokes. While Alexander Siddig seems to have the monopoly on naively idealistic Arabs, as his similar character in "Kingdom of Heaven" against another Crusades, history is littered with the interim, modernizing liberal tragically caught between powerful forces. (Though the proliferation of Western-educated Arab intellectuals in movies is beginning to sound like all those Japanese generals in World War II movies who went to USC or whatever; at least he went to Oxford and not Harvard.)
Matt Damon's un-Bourne-like energy analyst just sounds simplistic even when he's truth-telling, but we also see that he's already slid down the slippery slope of ethics in the crossing of his personal and professional lives. That so many of the oil and gas executives have Texas accents (superb Chris Cooper, Tim Blake Nelson, Robert Foxworth) does seem to say that the decades of business and political corruption there, as documented in Robert Caro's biography of LBJ, have simply been extended to a global scale.
The film is also unusual in focusing on the role of lawyers negotiating the deals between companies and governments. While Christopher Plummer's Ivy League senior partner type has been seen as a shadowy force in countless paranoid thrillers, Jeffrey Wright is completely unpredictable and tightly wound, though the point of his relationship with his cynical alcoholic father isn't exactly clear except maybe as his conscience. We see before our eyes he goes from, as his mentor says, "a sheep into a lion."
Most films have prosecutors like David Clennon's U.S. attorney as a hero against corruption, instead of being chillingly dismissed as "trust fund lawyers." But the script is so full of such epigrams, like "In this town, you're only innocent until you're investigated," that one character calls another on issuing them too brightly.
While from the beginning I couldn't quite follow all the machinations around George Clooney's character, he is wonderful at transforming from his usual Cary Grant suave to harried, dedicated, mid-level bureaucrat who literally won't toe the Company line in a dangerous hierarchy that's shown to be a bit more competent than in real life, that reminded me both in the gut and guts of Russell Crowe's Wigand in the tobacco wars in "The Insider." It recalls how benign corrupt spooks looked in their personal lives, as there's much conversation here about houses, cars and college tuition. Indirectly, the film implicitly shows the dangers to Valerie Plame from her outing as a CIA operative, as families and personal connections are constantly used as threats and bargaining chips.
Significantly, there is not a single mention amidst all these Mideast chicaneries, plots and plans of the Zionist entity, proving that pro or anti-Israel policies are smoke screens around the main draw -- oil.
Movie-wise, these characters seem a lot like the gangsters and their conseglieres in "The Godfather" carving up Cuba and drug rights, let alone Gordon Gekko extolling "Greed is good" as the ultimate ideology, and fits right in with this year's other geo-political thrillers "The Constant Gardener" and "Lord of War," and those weren't even about natural resources. It works better than the re-make of "The Manchurian Candidate" because even though the focal point is a fictional country the issues are real, not science fiction.
So does this make you ready to get out of your car and onto the train? Because until then, we'll still need lots of that oil from the Middle East.
- Dec 11, 2005