Pubdate: Thu,  8 Dec 2005
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2005 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Bruce Newman


In Newest Film, 'Traffic' Writer Studies Addiction To Mideast Oil

In "Traffic," writer Stephen Gaghan's Oscar-winning movie about the 
global drug trade, there were so many merging story lines to keep 
track of that a system of color-coding scenes had to be devised so 
that audiences could read the film almost like a map. For "Syriana," 
his new thriller about international petro-politics that opens 
Friday, Gaghan returns to the multiple-story template. But this time 
he has blown up the map.

"You could be here or there; it all looks the same, because the world 
is tiny," says Gaghan (pronounced GAY-gun). "When a guy who lives in 
a cave in Afghanistan can bring down the World Trade Center, however 
big you thought the world was -- with us over here, and them over 
there -- that's gone. This is not a big world anymore. The paradigm 
has shifted."

That shift occurred not long after Gaghan collected an Oscar in 2001 
for his adaptation of Simon Moore's British miniseries "Traffik," 
which is set partly in Afghanistan, a country the United States was 
about to invade. "Syriana" is named for a mythical oil emirate in the 
region of Syria and Iran, and it deals with America's addiction to 
cheap imported oil in the same way "Traffic" examined our addiction 
to narcotics.

As part of his research into the drug trade, Gaghan met the man 
running the Pentagon's counter-narcotics operations in 1998. "The 
plaque outside the door said 'Counter-narcotics and 
counter-terrorism,' " he recalls. "It was the same guy running both. 
That got me thinking a lot about how the war on drugs was a war on an 
abstraction, a war on brain chemistry. Then 9/11 happens and 
suddenly, wham, we're in a war on terror -- another abstraction. 
First we had a war on molecules, now we've got a war on emotions."

The relationship between drug users and their dealers seemed to 
Gaghan to so closely resemble the one between oil producers and 
consumer nations that he began plotting "Syriana" as the rest of the 
world was obsessing about Iraq. "I didn't want to time-stamp the 
film," he says. "So I left out Iraq, I left Israel out, and I really 
left 9/11 out.

"When I turned in the first draft of my script, it was the same week 
George Bush landed on that aircraft carrier and declared 'Mission 
accomplished.' But I feel like this belief that western empires have 
- -- that they can remake the Middle East to suit their own purposes -- 
is timeless. It was going on at the time of the Roman Empire, it's 
going on today, and I think it will be going on in 25 years. Ninety 
percent of the world's energy reserves are in that region."

Gaghan sees a powerful link between oil and the war on terror, and 
even though "Syriana" scarcely mentions the attacks of Sept. 11, 
2001, or the war in Iraq, they remain the film's subtext. "We're all 
in the back seat of this car, America, and the car is going down the 
road," he says. "If you didn't feel that car accelerate after 9/11 
and take a sharp turn, you weren't awake. Fifty years of bilateral 
maintenance of the status quo in the Middle East was tossed out the 
window for what has turned into a giant democracy-exportation project."

To research "Syriana," Gaghan spent time traveling with Bob Baer, the 
CIA's Iraq bureau chief in the 1990s, and author of the memoir "See 
No Evil." The character Bob Barnes (played in the movie by George 
Clooney) is based on Baer, who invited Gaghan to accompany him to the 
south of France, where all the major players in the conjoined worlds 
of Middle East oil and terror congregate in August to get out of the 
desert heat.

"For three weeks I was going to lunches on boats," Gaghan says, "and 
eventually I'd get shuffled off to the kids' table, where a bunch of 
15-year-old girls are asking me if I know Leonardo DiCaprio. And 
there's Baer, grilling some guy in a language he claims he doesn't 
speak. Bob is an information merchant, and the whole point of taking 
a screenwriter from Hollywood on this trip was for me to be a beard 
for him to try to find Khalid Shaikh Mohammad."

Baer never caught up with Al-Qaida's 9/11 mastermind, but he did 
introduce Gaghan to the leader of a desert tribe, who the "Syriana" 
director says was an ally of the United States. The man had told Baer 
that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was willing to surrender 
prior to the American-led invasion of Iraq. Gaghan claims that "the 
U.S. dropped six JDAM missiles on his home," wiping out the man and 
his entire family.

With "Syriana," Gaghan hopes to "dramatize the complexities" of that 
world, and he sees the current box office slump for studio movies as 
an opportunity to try unconventional storytelling techniques. "Where 
I work, there's been an over-reliance on formulas," he says. "You 
know the whole movie one minute in.

"But if you can stay a step ahead of the audience, start scenes later 
than you ordinarily would, and try to mirror the complexity of the 
world in a way that feels truthful, instead of reducing it to a 
Hollywood verity, isn't that a valid type of moviegoing experience?"

He is about to find out, and the answer is likely to be color-coded 
green for "yes."
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman