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Clooney: "Syriana" means to puzzle
Detroit Free Press
George Clooney is opting for transparency when it comes to "Syriana," opening Friday.
"It's complicated, confusing even. And it's political. I'm not trying to sidestep that. I'm pleased about it."
Clooney plays a veteran CIA agent — burned out, worn down, distrustful and frustrated at the way the agency has become politicized. He is also the film's producer, along with Steven Soderbergh. "Syriana" was inspired in part by a book by former intelligence agent Robert Baer, a Mideast specialist who is the basis for Clooney's character, Bob Barnes. But Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer of "Traffic" who directed and wrote "Syriana," says the movie is "pure imagination — based on fact."
Gaghan went on something of an 18-month magical mystery tour — "more like Alice's trip to Wonderland," he says — to research "Syriana." Like "Traffic," it tells four stories:
• Barnes, put out to pasture after an assignment gone wrong and ready for retirement, is recruited to do a job that, should it go wrong, will put an end to his career anyway.
• An oil analyst (Matt Damon) becomes close to Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), who wants to democratize his oil-rich emirate should he be named his father's successor.
• The sole African American (Jeffrey Wright) at a powerful Washington, D.C., law firm is assigned to run the due diligence required by the FTC in a merger between two oil companies whose bosses — a genteel power broker played by Christopher Plummer and a bootstraps corner-cutter played by Chris Cooper — have very different temperaments and world views.
Separated at birth?
Birthday: Both born on May 6; Clooney in 1961, Gaghan in 1965.
Birthplace: Both born in Kentucky; Clooney in Lexington, Gaghan in Louisville.
Boffo TV-series ties: Clooney to "ER" and Gaghan to "The Practice."
Questionable career decisions: Gaghan turned down offer to adapt "The Da Vinci Code." Clooney agreed to do "Batman."
Clooney says: "I don't believe in happy endings, but I do believe in happy travels, because ultimately ... you die at a very young age, or you live long enough to watch your friends die. It's a mean thing, life."
Gaghan says: "It's rare in Hollywood to get the chance to work on something that you actually care about. The tragedy of the place is all these talented people trying to get excited about stuff they themselves would only view at gunpoint."
• Back in the emirate, two Pakistanis unable to get work or keep work permits are radicalized by a local cleric.
"It all grew out of what I read and experienced," says Gaghan. "When I met Bob, he would tell me these stories about the interconnections, how business gets done, and I figured about half of them were true and the other half were embellished. After all, this guy has serious skills in disinformation. One day, he says, 'Look, I'm going to this party in France, you might find it interesting, you want to tag along?'
"The next thing I know I'm on a yacht somewhere in a sort of United Nations of political and military and business connections where everybody knows everybody. I had to explain that I was a screenwriter, not a journalist, which reassured the people I spoke with somewhat. On their totem pole of people with pens to worry about, it would be a Nobel Prize-winning poet, journalists and, way below that, screenwriters."
Clooney and Soderbergh had been impressed — "like the rest of the world," says Soderbergh — with Gaghan's script for "Traffic." His only previous film as a director was "Abandon," a disjointed thriller with Katie Holmes. Clooney says he was not terribly concerned that Gaghan wouldn't be up to the complicated narrative turns of "Syriana."
"I know you probably don't remember this, but I've been involved with some pretty bad movies, too," says Clooney, who once boasted of being the guy who "single-handedly killed the 'Batman' franchise."
"But most things you get involved with look pretty interesting when you take them on, and you go ahead even if the script isn't all there. With this, Steve had done so much homework, there was no doubt we had a movie. We may have had too much movie."
Clooney confirms that there was another plotline that was filmed and cut from "Syriana"; in fact, he says, there were two.
"Both of them were germane to the story; they just added other layers. But the movie was confusing enough as it was, and we didn't want people to just throw up their hands.
"What we always wanted to make was a movie that made people think all the way through: How is this connected to that? What interest does he have in this? Where does all this fit in? We're so used to having all the dots connected for us that movies don't stimulate us. I like having my brain tickled. I like movies where the lines between the good guys and the bad guys are hard to discern. And I like movies that tell me things I didn't know — or maybe I didn't even want to know."
Clooney knows, of course, that "Syriana" will be as much reviewed on editorial pages and talk radio as it is in entertainment sections. Instead of Leno and Letterman, he says, he's doing sit-downs with Charlie Rose and with Cynthia McFadden on the new "Nightline."
"I know they're gonna come at me. That's why, even though this is a work of fiction, we tried to be as true as possible to the way things work. ... They'll hurl the usual cant around, but this isn't any attack on the Bush administration. It's an attempt to unravel the way things work.
"If this opens some eyes and starts some debate, we've done our job. I mean, it's a movie, it's a thriller, it's family drama, it has international intrigue, but it has purpose. That's the kind of movies I want to make."
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company