Syriana is the best ad for a hybrid car you’ll see this year. Building on the structure of his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Traffic,” writer-director Stephen Gaghan’s tense, understated oil epic never feels as bloated as producer-star George Clooney’s much discussed belly.

In the context of Hollywood big-theme filmmaking, this is something of a small miracle. Interweaving multiple storylines connected to the merger of two major U.S. oil ompanies, Gaghan employs a group of messy characters, including a burned-out CIA vet (Clooney), an upstart energy analyst (Matt Damon), a Gulf nation prince urging reform (Alexander Siddig), an uptight DC lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) and two budding teenage suicide bombers (Mazhar Munir and Shahid Ahmed).

Syriana examines how the connections between American oil interests and nation-building go much deeper than the actions of Bush I and II. Gaghan presents a hard look at the shared interests between nations, corporations and individuals, yet still allows filmgoers to draw their own conclusions.

With so much to cover in two hours, this film moves fast, building a pressured immediacy by starting scenes as if we walked in two minutes late. Some critics, who welcome the usual Hollywood condescension, have deemed Syriana as too difficult to follow.

A few “Hello My Name Is ...” tags would be helpful in the film’s first half, but the filmmakers go out of their way in the second half to tie everything together – even sacrificing common sense to provide a tidy, if unnerving, denouement.

For the more attentive, the film’s supple cutting, non-didactic score and character minutiae (a weary glance from Clooney, a hesitant glasses adjustment from Wright) offer
everything we need to know from the outset. It’s a behind-the-scenes story well told in a behind-the-scenes style.

Despite some wonderfully campy lines from Tim Blake Nelson, Syrianais devoid of humor about its morally bankrupt world (it desperately needs at least one character to
run out of gas mid-chase).

Its seriousness is a virtue, except during a few overly-leaden parts that weigh down the film’s otherwise deft hand at political storytelling.

Syriana leans heavily on its flawless casting, from the semi-leads Clooney, Damon and Wright (all rare among American actors in their ability to convey thought on screen) down to the last extra.

As a credit to these performers and Gaghan’s script, much of the film’s suspense derives not from action sequences but from our attempts to precisely decipher each character’s true motivations.

Syriana deserves your attention if only to make one thankful for the relatively minor corruption of the MTA.