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'How does it feel to be alive today?'

'Syriana' tries to sum up a world

By Todd Leopold

Jeffrey Wright plays a rising Washington lawyer in "Syriana."



Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Peet, Alexander Siddig, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt

Written and directed by: Stephen Gaghan

Studio: Warner Bros.



George Clooney
Jeffrey Wright
Matt Damon
Stephen Gaghan

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Yes, Stephen Gaghan says, his movie "Syriana" is about oil and politics. But it's also about other things: global interconnectedness. Willful ignorance. Consumerism.

It's about showing how the sausage is made.

Almost literally.

There's a scene in the movie, he observes, in which Amanda Peet, playing the wife of Matt Damon's Geneva-based energy analyst, is trying to feed her son breakfast. The son wants bacon. It is bacon, she replies, soy bacon. No, he says, I want pig bacon.

"That's why we have the 'pig bacon' thing in there," says Gaghan, sitting in an opulent conference room in the Atlanta Four Seasons Hotel, a space that could have doubled for one of the movie's gathering places. ("I bet I scouted a hundred rooms like this," Gaghan marvels.)

He mentions a book called "Dominion" by Matthew Scully, a former Bush speechwriter turned animal-rights activist.

"Go to a factory farm and look at how these animals are treated, and ask yourself if you want to be part of this system," he says, referring to a Scully question. "I was horrified by that. But ... I love bacon. I have a '66 GTO convertible with a 6.5-liter engine. The switch for me to soy bacon and Priuses does not come terribly easy."

Which is to say, the choices for his characters -- Damon's energy analyst, Jeffrey Wright's up-and-coming Washington lawyer, George Clooney's CIA agent, businessmen, sheiks, Pakistani workers -- don't come easily, either.

"The choices are hard," he says. "If they are easy we wouldn't even be thinking about them. They would have already been made."

'Maybe you can make sense of it'

"Syriana" uncoils several plots. In the Middle East, the reform-minded prince of a small energy-producing nation gives drilling rights to the Chinese. An American oil company affected by the transaction seeks a merger with a smaller firm that has rights elsewhere. The Justice Department wants to look into the merger; the oil firms' interests are guarded by lawyer Bennett Holiday (Wright).

Damon's energy analyst, Bryan Woodman, ingratiates himself with the prince. CIA agent Bob Barnes (Clooney) is told to assassinate the prince to protect American interests in the region.

And then there are the Pakistani oil workers who live in decrepit trailers in the prince's country, Egyptian-born madrasa leaders, Barnes' tunnel-visioned bosses, oil company executives and turf-warring Washington attorneys.

(The film is distributed by Warner Bros., like CNN a division of Time Warner.)

It's a world that was almost completely unknown to Gaghan before he started working on the film. Consultant Robert Baer, on whom Clooney's character was based, had written a memoir of his CIA service, but that was nothing compared to seeing the territory first-hand, Gaghan says.

"He called me up and said, 'Mike, you really want to know how it works, come with me to Europe to the south of France in August,' " the writer-director recalls. " 'All the players are there, man. ... I'll take you around, and you can ask any question you want, and maybe you can make sense of it.' "

Baer is more nonchalant about the trip, though he found it fascinating for another reason. "I was looking at my world through his eyes," he says in a phone interview. "He was framing all this as he went along."

Once an agent, always an agent, though: While Gaghan asked his questions, "I was looking for surveillance," says Baer.

The Tony-winning Wright ("Angels in America") was attracted to the film precisely for its knotty intricacies.

"I tend to be drawn to pieces with political elements," says the actor, a one-time political science major and the son of a government lawyer. "It's the rare opportunity that you get as an actor do work ... connected to contemporary sociopolitical realities of the world."

This is 'the modern world'

Stephen Gaghan says he wanted the first hour of the film to push audiences to the limits.

The film's complexity, though, has observers wondering if audiences will be intimidated. Though most critics have given the movie rave reviews, The New Yorker's David Denby is not alone in wondering if the work is "a rare case of a filmmaker respecting an audience's intelligence too much."

Gaghan doesn't buy it.

"I've been party to so many conversations in New York and L.A. where people explain that the middle of the country won't do this, the middle of the country won't do that, the flyover won't get this, the flyover won't get that," he says, his voice rising. "I am the flyover. I'm from Kentucky. ... I am the red state flyover you are talking about, and you -- are -- selling -- me -- short."

The structure of the film is deliberate, he adds.

"In the first hour of the film I wanted to push you out to the limits," he says. "I wanted each scene to make perfect sense. ... Where the difficulty comes is piecing together the meaning of why these scenes are next to each other. Because that's the way the modern world feels to me."

He mentions the front page of a recent New York Times, with articles about disgraced congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, Nigerian corruption, the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Iraq war.

"All this stuff seems different, but it all seems the same. So [with] multiple narrative you go ... I don't know how all this fits together. That's the first hour of Syriana," he adds. "And the second hour, it's all thematics, about shared humanity, about the things buried in us in which we give ourselves a little moral out, little moral asterisks." The characters make choices. Some are in everybody's interest. Some are purely for themselves. All are rationalized.

Given the film's settings, "Syriana" has been read by some critics as an indictment of the Bush administration. But Gaghan says oilmen who have seen the movie have been "weirdly positive" -- "nobody's against trying to improve ethical conduct," he adds -- and the "movie is not partisan."

The expansive Wright agrees.

"[We have] a mammoth, unwieldy economy and society that has to be supported," he says. "The film doesn't point the finger at Bush. ... [We have a system] that requires us to suck up the resources of the world to support our lifestyle. It's an indictment of all of us."

"Syriana" merely reflects the world we live in, says Gaghan, underbelly and all. There's so much information, so many intentions, and so many causes-and-effects.

"The modern world feels to me that it's gotten very small," he says. "And in a movie, where these [events] can cross, where everything doesn't have to be explained, you can take two hours and try to get the whole world compacted down into a feeling: How does it feel to be alive today?"

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