If we are indeed living in a morally bankrupt world – one in which oil-rich Middle Eastern nations and top government officials conspire to protect private interests while the unwitting populace suffers – it feels a bit silly to tout a movie as the guiding light to that higher truth. But when respected Hollywood politicos are involved, the expectations are for higher than just a good film. “Syriana,” written and directed by “Traffic” screenwriter Steven Gaghan and starring George Clooney, hopes to be more than an intricately woven geopolitical thriller. It hopes to be, in fact, a bold statement – a call to arms.
Clooney, who plays the CIA operative and near-retiree Bob Barnes, is just the biggest name in an ensemble cast that has more than 70 speaking parts and features many respected, but unheralded, actors such as Jeffrey Wright (“Broken Flowers”) and Tim Blake Nelson (“O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?”). The film snakes through the world of global-oil politics in the wake of Prince Nasir’s move away from American preference and the fight waged by the CIA and American business interests to maintain that preference. As was the case with “Traffic,” “Syriana” makes use of multiple storylines featuring characters unaware of one another’s existence, which is absolutely necessary in order to portray an entire system at work.
As Gaghan put it, “these characters themselves existed in a story where they thought they knew what was happening, but they were actually confused,” he said. “This was born out of my research and out of my experience of meeting a lot of what I call cut-rate masters of the universe. They’re re-drawing the map of Europe; they’re the big seer; and, in reality they’re just following an absolutely narrow brand of self-interest.” Gaghan alluded to extensive research conducted by the filmmakers in hopes of making “Syriana” as accurate as possible.
Herein lies the dilemma for a fictional yet overtly political brand of filmmaking: Which is the top priority, accuracy or entertainment? Predictably enough, Gaghan claims that those goals aren’t mutually exclusive. With the push for reality comes the end result of a great film. “I haven’t found that going for accuracy would get in the way of quality, I guess.”
Remarkably, Gaghan claims that some of the most spectacular tales he encountered weren’t included in the film because, simply, they wouldn’t be believed. “I witnessed things and heard conversations that were great scenes, but if I stuck them down in the movie, people would have said, ‘That’s bullshit. There is no way,’ or people would have said, ‘Oh, you just have an agenda,’ or they would have said, ‘This is “Dr. Strangelove.” ‘ Gaghan, then, had to serve as the arbiter, weighing the collected anecdotes in terms of how they fit into the effectiveness of “Syriana” and not how dramatic they might be or how important their exposition was. After all, this isn’t CNN.
Like any news broadcasting agent, however, the principal parties involved in “Syriana” claim it champions no particular political viewpoint. Clooney, who was paid $1 to act in and co-produce the film, said “obviously, it’s a political film, but we showed this to a lot of neo-cons who liked it and agreed with it. Our argument, of course, is to raise a debate, not to tell people what the answers are, because, clearly, we don’t have any answers for this – the issues or the problems.”
Ultimately we’re left to rely on a bunch of charming, intelligent people to show us the truth – not experts, but entertainers. Still, both Clooney and Gaghan demonstrated a unique knack in conversation for summarizing the essence of a time, dealing with formidable issues with brutal hilarity. Talking about the now bankrupt optimism that swept the country under President Clinton, Gaghan said, “In the ’90s it seemed like it was the end of history; capitalism and democracy had won. There was nothing to worry about except, like, stock options and shopping. You would find people going, ‘You’re not a multimillionaire yet from your Internet company? What’s wrong with you? You’re like the last schmo on earth. Get with it.’
Officially laymen, Clooney and Gaghan are privy only to information in the public sphere. And yet, due to their stalwart dedication to the comprehension of oil politics and their unique level of sacrifice to get such a controversial and logistically difficult project off the ground, Gaghan and Clooney endear themselves to the audience. The efforts birth a palpable hope that a movie like “Syriana” can serve as a legitimate spur toward an open debate about the unsavory tactics of the oil market’s power players. It might sound silly to trust a bunch of entertainers, but it sure doesn’t feel that way.