A spy thriller that the director, writers, and actors didn’t just phone in.

Last week, I had the privilege of watching a screening of Syriana with a very visual-media-savvy crowd. We spent the fifteen minutes after the lights came up trying to figure out various of the plot details: not what they meant, but just what had been depicted as having happened.

Since then, I’ve been trying to sort out my reactions. Here’s where I stand right now:

1. The movie tries to do for the politics of oil what Traffic did for dope dealing. I thought it did a much better job, but perhaps that’s only because I know more about dope than I do about oil. An oil-policy expert might have felt about Syriana the way I felt about Traffic.

2. The film was made with a political intention. I doubt it will work. My confidence is high that the people who drive to the movie theater in their Escalades to see Syriana will notice any incongruity.

3. To be fully comprehended, the film demanded much more attention than the typical spy thriller: more than my fellow-viewers and I could summon. (Think Memento.) Thus the arguments afterwards.

4. But we actually cared about what had happened. Score one for the filmmakers. The script was literate, the acting and the cinematography were high-quality. Just as a thriller, Syriana is pretty damed good: not as much fun as, say, The Ipcress File, but echelons above the routine stuff I see on airplanes.

5. You can always watch it a few more times on DVD to figure out the plot. If I had a DVD player, or a TV set to show it on, I’d go out and buy the DVD as soon as it comes out.

6. No, I don’t know what the title means or refers to, either. The movie doesn’t get any closer to Syria than Beirut.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: