Stephen Gaghan wrapped an early draft of his “Syriana” script in May 2003 at what seemed like a decidedly inauspicious moment.
President Bush had just declared on the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier that major combat operations in Iraq were over. The notorious “Mission Accomplished” banner was hanging behind the flight-suit-clad commander in chief.
“It looks like I’m dead wrong,” Mr. Gaghan recalls thinking over a recent lunch.
We spin visions of a pacified Iraq. Of the Cabo San Lucas of the Middle East. Of riverboat casinos on the Tigris.
“Bye, honey, I’m off to Baghdad. The Giants are playing Fallujah. We’re tailgating,” Mr. Gaghan jokes, ruefully.
Two years later, the writer-director feels somewhat vindicated.
“I’ve traveled around the Middle East with various ex-intelligence-officers. Everyone I talked to on the ground there, all they talked about was tribal enmity — just how hard it had been historically for anybody to get along,” he says.
“Not just the Shiites and the Sunnis, but all sorts of festering tiny micro-conflicts, right down to ‘I’m upset because my neighbor didn’t invite me to his wedding.’”
“Syriana,” which opens tomorrow in area theaters, does not deal directly with the Iraq war or the ongoing insurgency. It does, however, have a lot to say about America’s relationship with the Middle East, about the vast web of oilmen, Arab royals and Washington high muck-a-mucks that make the region so intriguing.
It boasts a formidable ensemble cast that includes George Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, Chris Cooper and District native Jeffrey Wright. Everyone worked for scale, Mr. Gaghan says. The actors were excited by the idea of having a voice in current events as they were unfolding.
“It was like doing ‘Apocalypse Now’ in ‘68, or ‘Three Kings’ in ‘91,” he says, referring to movies that dealt retrospectively with the Vietnam and first Gulf wars, respectively.
Mr. Gaghan says “Syriana” grew, in part, out of the same fascination with the ineradicable facets of human nature that inspired him to write the war-on-drugs meditation “Traffic,” for which he earned an Oscar for best screenplay.
America, according to this analogy, has a collective drug addiction. The drug is cheap, plentiful oil.
“China has 10 million cars now. What will happen when they have 100 million cars?” Mr. Gaghan muses. “I think it’s a very interesting thing to ponder. These guys hold more of our treasury notes than anybody else; they’ve essentially been financing our war in Iraq.”
Mr. Gaghan, 40 and married with two young children, lives in a bookish corner of Santa Monica, Calif. The house where German author Thomas Mann spent his exile is on Mr. Gaghan’s street. The late poet Christopher Isherwood’s house is in view of Mr. Gaghan’s home.
Before discovering his flair for dramatic writing, he tried his luck with short stories and poems, and during what he describes as a heavy-drinking period in New York, he worked for the Paris Review literary magazine.
Yet it seems as if Mr. Gaghan, tall, wiry and serious, would like nothing more than to be in Washington, near the levers of power. As the focus turns on politics, he grows more animated. He relishes talk of ambiguity, of complicated realities that transcend the “demagogic, antipodal” rhetoric on the right and left.
When talk focuses on the perplexities of going to war or continuing sanctions, of supposedly fighting over oil that Saddam Hussein was perfectly willing to sell, Mr. Gaghan leans back and throws up his arms.
“There is no black and white,” he says. “I think your conservative and liberal certainties fall apart as you dig into the actual facts of governing in this arena.”
Take mutual funds, he says: Millions of people invest in them. And no small portion of that money is invested in the military-industrial complex.
That means, when you unpeel the layers of conspiracy, the veils of secrecy pierced in paranoid 1970s thrillers such as “The Parallax View,” you’ll ultimately find that the conspirators are us.
“I think that’s very interesting,” Mr. Gaghan says.
In researching “Syriana,” he read a pile of disparate books, including former Bush White House speechwriter Matthew Scully’s animal rights treatise, “Dominion” (“such an interesting guy,” Mr. Gaghan says) and Paul Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism” (a wake-up call for “Mr. Weak-kneed Hollywood Liberal” that “we’re in a war”).
The book that gave Mr. Gaghan a way into “Syriana” was ex-spy Robert Baer’s “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.” Mr. Gaghan traveled with Mr. Baer (the inspiration for Mr. Clooney’s character) to various Middle East locales and was drawn to his mixture of on-the-field exploits and Beltway savvy.
“Bob Baer is obsessed with Washington law firms, like on a level that’s not healthy,” Mr. Gaghan says. “He thinks about them all the time. He can name all the big players — these white-shoe insider law firms that can navigate the regulatory shoals of Washington, where all sides of every deal are represented.”
At one point in 2003, Mr. Gaghan wound up in the suburban Maryland kitchen of Richard Perle, the influential former chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee.
Now it’s on to much less heady fare.
If he has a say in the matter.
Says Mr. Gaghan: “I’m getting ready to do this new movie” — an adaptation of writer Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio — “and I know I really want it to be a kind of coming-of-age story. And yet already, union politics and health care reform are seeping in around the edges, against my will.”
Meaning “Blink” won’t come out until 2009?
Mr. Gaghan is adamant. The promise is made as much to himself as to his interviewer. “‘Blink’ is going to come out next year. No matter what. It’s going to be a superfun mainstream entertainment.
“Famous last words.”