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New Clooney Thriller <i>Syriana</i> Takes on Global Oil Industry, Espionage


The global oil industry, geopolitics and espionage. Those are the ingredients in a political thriller that mirrors events happening in the world right now. Alan Silverman has a look at Syriana.

Bob Barnes is a veteran CIA agent who discovers he is a relic. After years of field work in the Middle East, Barnes finds his expertise - working on the ground, cultivating contacts face-to-face and gathering firsthand intelligence - replaced by satellites and electronic devices. But the experienced spy knows all that data is useless without someone to interpret it who knows the region and its cultures.

George Clooney stars as Barnes and is also producer of Syriana which takes its title from a term actually used by think-tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East. The film deals with incendiary current events and uses the names of real places, but Clooney draws a distinction between this work of fiction and the work of journalists.

"I don't think films are designed to provide answers," Clooney says. " I think films are designed to ask questions and I think journalism is designed to get answers. We're actually just asking questions and sparking debate ... and then trying to make it an entertainment, because it is still a film. They're not civics lessons, they're actually entertaining films: tough, but entertaining films."

Offscreen, Clooney is known for his liberal political views; but he insists Syriana is not intended as a critique of conservative policies.

"When you see the film, it's not an attack on the [Bush] administration at all," he says. " It is certainly questioning 30, 40 or 50 years of policies in the Middle East. I think most of the conservatives who have seen the film agree with it and most of the liberals agree with it; so I felt we were fairly safe in taking on the subject matter. My job was to know as much as I could so I wouldn't marginalize the piece."

"It's a pretty complicated topic, so we all did a lot of reading," adds Matt Damon, who co-stars as an energy analyst who uses a bold tactic to win the business of a progressive Gulf State prince.

"Maybe there are actors who can just show up and say lines and not have any idea of what they're talking about, but I'm not one of them I have to be somewhat grounded in what I'm talking about," he says. "Having said that, they had a couple of these oil guys there who were trying to explain things like derivatives to me (and) I was totally lost when these guys were talking. It really is complex stuff."

Writer and director Stephen Gaghan takes the label 'complex' as a compliment.

"First of all, I didn't want you to be able to process everything that happens in the movie during the movie. I wanted it to stay with you," he explains.

Gaghan won an Oscar for his screenplay to the 2000 hit Traffic which used a similar 'parallel stories' structure to examine the international narcotics trade. For Syriana Gaghan traveled the oil-producing region with some expert guidance.

" I got to research this film traveling all over Europe and the Middle East with a real CIA officer - a guy who was our Iraqi bureau chief in the mid-1990's and who infiltrated Hezbollah in the 1980's," he explains. "He's the real thing and as we met all these rogues in the gallery and everyone across the spectrum, something struck me, which was: none of these guys have the whole picture. Not a single one."

That retired CIA operative, on whom the Clooney character is based, is Robert Baer, who believes Gaghan 'got it right.'

"Absolutely right ... dead on ... and the only way he got it right was because he took the trip," Baer says. "Every voice you hear in this movie is authentic. It is a fictionalized account, but everything is authentic. This is a movie. It's not a documentary or investigative piece, but it's absolutely authentic. There's one thing you'll never catch that's not authentic and he did that on purpose."

Syriana also features Alexander Siddig as the prince who wants to change things; and Christopher Plummer is an oil millionaire whose fortune depends on the region remaining the same.

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