WASHINGTON – “Syriana” was supposed to have a different ending – one more cinematic,more climactic,a moment of redemption to cut through a glaze of amorality.
But that would have been way too Hollywood.
“It would have been phony,” said Stephen Gaghan,who wrote and directed the film,which opens nationwide Friday.
Instead,Gaghan changed it at the last minute to stay the rest of the movie's tone. But he didn't tell anyone until hours after he made the cut,causing an uproar among some studio producers,who flocked to executive producer Steven Soderbergh in dismay.
When they told him the news,Gaghan said Soderbergh simply responded,“Damn,why didn't I think of that?”
The final cut isn't exactly true to “See No Evil,” the candid autobiography of ex-CIA operative Robert Baer that prompted Gaghan to write “Syriana” and inspired George Clooney's character,Bob Barnes. And it certainly doesn't follow a formula. But for Gaghan,a period doesn't suffice when an ellipsis is more honest,and when it comes to global oil industry,the sentence won't end until the oil runs out.
The movie doesn't make a run at exaggeration or forced action. It's all eerily mundane – the Pakistani suicide bomber with an American bomb,a sinister oil merger deal,payoffs,layoffs,deception and assassination. In “Syriana,” as in reality,the most normal is often the most startling.
“I had to commit to banality,” Gaghan said in a panel discussion Wednesday after a screening here. “Through some strange alchemy,out came dramatic scenes.”
On set,he said,that translated to bored effects guys and painstaking shoots. In the theater,it means one hell of a movie.
Gaghan,fascinated by Baer's book and Middle Eastern intrigue,spent two years touring Washington and abroad to research the film.
He talked to politicians,arms dealers,oil tycoons,heads of terrorist groups and others,all of it fodder for a complex,interwoven plot structure that demands strict attention.
Though characters and plot are made up,to dismiss the film as propaganda would be to ignore its realism,which is what Gaghan strove for and which is evident because he stole the story from actual people and events.
“Every scene in this movie is authentic,” said Baer,who also appeared at the screening. “These are the kinds of people I dealt with.”
Take,for example,the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq,a non-governmental organization begun in 2002,mimicked in “Syriana” by a group called CLI,the “I” standing instead for Iran. Gaghan accidentally discovered the Iraq group meeting in a hotel basement.
“I just wandered around and eavesdropped in the lobby by the elevators,and thus the CLI was born,” he said.
On another occasion,Gaghan traveled to Beirut. When he arrived,an anonymous phone caller – “an acquaintance of an acquaintance of Bob,” he said – instructed him to go to a certain location,where he was grabbed,blindfolded and transported to a room for questioning. Such a scene appears in the movie.
“People are like,‘Did that really happen?'” Gaghan said.
It did really happen,as did most of the events surrounding Bob Barnes; similar events involved Baer.
“Why am I being investigated?” shouts a dispensable Barnes at his unforgiving superior in one scene. All he gets in response is a cold,“Goodbye,Bob,” like Baer's farewell after botched intelligence in Iraq in the 1990s.
“It all went horribly wrong,” Baer said.
Maybe the best descriptor for Barnes is Baer's book title,“See No Evil.” It's his unquestioning compliance with orders – such as to deal a bomb to an Iranian who detonates it as Barnes walks away without flinch or turn – that's particularly worrisome.
“You get into really dangerous moral grounds,” Baer said. “Twenty-one years in the CIA and you lose your beliefs.”
But Gaghan hasn't lost his. His goal for the movie,he said,was to be honest,impartial and to avoid preaching.
“I tried not to make this a partisan film,” he said,though he mentioned his efforts may have been lost on some at a screening the previous night. “Finger pointing and yelling doesn't seem to be working terribly well.”
Having won an Oscar for best screenplay in 2001 for the comparably ambitious “Traffic,” Gaghan has proved he has a knack for writing things that do work. After watching “Syriana,” it's hard not to shout Pulitzer.
But then you have to remind yourself that what you've seen is fiction. Isn't it?