STEPHEN GAGHAN KNOWS ALL TOO WELL HOW Hollywood handles political issues. “You pick some past event and you make it an allegory,” says the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Traffic. “You say, ‘They had totalitarian thinking is that what’s going on today, too?’ And moviegoers think about that for an eighth of a second as they walk out of the theater.”
But Syriana, the new movie Gaghan wrote and directed, is no allegory. In fact, it’s an outright indictment of the evils of American consumer culture. It’s got the multiple plotlines of Traffic, only centered on oil instead of drugs; it might be Hollywood’s toughest political movie since 1974’s The Parallax View. Since Syriana explores U.S. entanglements with petroleum producers, you’d expect it to be aimed at the Oval Office. But the target is broader. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” Gaghan says. “You can be furious at the things America does in your name.”
Gaghan, 40, knows a thing or two about sleeping with the enemy to feed an addiction. Before joining Hollywood’s A-list, the director spent years hooked on heroin. “Oil consumption mirrors something that I saw in the world of drugs,” he says. “The dealer can be a bad guy, but if you need his product, you’re not going to call him on it.”
Syriana began, like many aspects of our modern world, on September 11th, 2001. Watching the World Trade Center topple, Gaghan wondered, “Why do these people hate us?” Soon after, his Traffic collaborator, Steven Soderbergh, sent him See No Evil, the memoir of Robert Baer, a former CIA operative stationed in the Middle East.
Gaghan pitched Soderbergh: “I don’t even know what I want to do, but it has something to do with oil, with the Middle East, with radical Islamic philosophy. It could be really good, but It’s going to take a long time and cost a lot of money.”
Gaghan sold his idea as a political thriller set against the backdrop of the oil industry. Baer, whose book provides many of the details in Gaghan’s fictional script (and who served as the inspiration for George Clooney’s CIA-agent character), took Gaghan on a month-long trip to interview various petrochemical players, careening from Syria to Washington to Venice. “In the summer, all the players in the Persian Gulf go to cooler, wetter places,” Gaghan says. “Baer said, ‘You want to see how the Middle East works? Come with me to the South of France in August.’ A week later, we were on the back of a 200-foot boat, listening to a billionaire in the arms and oil business expound on why he was pulling his money out of the dollar and putting it into euros.”
The $50 million movie got made with major financing from eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, whose Participant Productions has been backing left-leaning films, like Good Night, and Good Luck. Clooney signed on as exec producer and star, giving the film a degree of autonomy. Says Gaghan, “We weren’t subjected to studio comments, like, ‘I don’t give a fuck about virulent totalitarian philosophies unless you put them on a bad guy who’s got some electrical device hooked up to the testicles of Tom Cruise, damn it.”‘
Five years ago, Gaghan was working with director William Friedkin, who shouted, “You wanna put war on trial? You make a $60 million movie, you better have a goddamn antagonist. And at the end, the antagonist better go down. When he does, the audience better come up out of their seats and clap like little monkeys. And if they don’t, you don’t have a movie!”
Gaghan ignored this advice. Syriana has four intertwined plots: Jeffrey Wright plays a lawyer investigating an oil-company merger; Matt Damon is a banker advising a reform-minded Arab prince (Alexander Siddig); Clooney is the agent assigned to assassinate that prince; Mazhar Munir is a young Pakistani drifting toward terrorism.
Syriana‘s title refers to a fantasy fomented in right-wing think tanks: that a new oil-rich country of that name could be carved out of Syria, Iran and Iraq, one controlled by the U.S. This explanation was excised from the movie; instead, Gaghan liked it as a mysterious metaphor for desire. “To me, Syriana stands for the West’s eternal hope that we can remake the Middle East for our own purposes,” he says.
Despite immersing himself in the evils of the oil industry, Gaghan is not a purist. In fact, he has a confession to make. “I have to get a second car,” he says quietly. “You know something? I don’t like hybrids.”