Revisiting Syriana

People often ask me if, after all these years of covering entertainment, there’s a celebrity I was especially nervous to interview. It wasn’t a superstar like Chris Evans or Penelope Cruz. It wasn’t an influential filmmaker like Clint Eastwood or Noah Baumbach. (Although I will say that Tommy Lee Jones was indeed a tough nut to crack, as he’s infamous for being, and that was especially true when I was new at this at 27.)

It was Robert Baer, the former longtime CIA officer whose memoir inspired the 2005 drama “Syriana.” George Clooney won a supporting-actor Oscar for his portrayal of a character based on Baer, and director Stephen Gaghan was nominated for his intricately intertwined screenplay. But when I sat down to pick Baer and Gaghan’s brains about their collaboration, I felt uncharacteristically intimidated. This is a man who’d spent his career asking tough questions himself — and evading providing answers — in some of the most dangerous spots around the globe. How could I possibly fare well in his presence?

As you’ll see from the resulting article below, Baer was kind, thoughtful and expansive (as was Gaghan). I got to thinking about this story when I saw Baer on CNN several times today offering his insights into the release of the declassified Devin Nunes memo. Amusingly, he called the four-page GOP document “garbage.” Hopefully, this “Syriana” article I wrote when I was still with The Associated Press deserves higher praise.

Spy’s life influences thriller ‘Syriana’


AP Movie Writer

NEW YORK —– “Syriana,” a dense and complicated film about the global oil industry, began with something as simple and familiar as a road trip.

During two months of traveling through the Middle East, an unlikely camaraderie developed between boyish, Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan and low-key former CIA officer Robert Baer. Gaghan calls their journey “the greatest field trip I ever got to go on.”

“I mean, how do you explain it?” the 40-year-old told The Associated Press. “You’re, like, a guy from Kentucky who lives in L.A. and suddenly you’re sitting with friends talking about their favorite surface-to-air missiles.”

The writer and director, who won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay in 2001 for “Traffic,” tells another multilayered story with “Syriana.” His inspiration is “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism,” Baer’s memoir about 21 years of gathering intelligence in the Middle East.

George Clooney plays a fictionalized version of the 53-year-old Baer: Longtime CIA agent Bob Barnes, on the verge of retirement, is assigned to assassinate a prince who’s heir to the throne in an oil-rich Persian Gulf country.

Intersecting plot lines feature Matt Damon as an idealistic energy analyst, Jeffrey Wright as an ambitious lawyer investigating a giant oil company merger and Mazhar Munir as a poor oil field worker.

Gaghan read “See No Evil” after he finished the drug-war drama “Traffic,” and was curious about how an eclectic array of international power brokers and hangers-on from oil, business and government ended up crossing paths in a CIA veteran’s book.

“I just wanted to get together with him. I wanted to see, what is a Bob Baer?” Gaghan told The Associated Press. “I’d never met a CIA officer. I’d only seen them in movies.”

“We had lunch,” said Baer, sitting alongside him. “And it always pays to show somebody, so I said, ‘Come to Europe. Let’s go to the Middle East and I’ll show you what I’m talking about. You listen to it and figure it out: What are all these intersections and why, what does it all mean?’

“I just sat down and introduced him to everybody I knew,” he added, “which is a very bizarre world.”

Baer approached his time with Gaghan as if it were “a college road trip —– driving down to Washington or up to New York or something. We had rented a Renault, we had no idea where we were going.”

Clooney, who’s been named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” seemed an unlikely choice to play a character who survives by being inconspicuous.

With a movie star, “they don’t blend in —– that’s the point. That’s why they get $20 million and 20 percent of gross, it’s so they don’t blend in,” Gaghan said. “So when George said he wanted to play the role, that was my first question: How are we going to do this?”

Clooney (who’s also an executive producer with “Traffic” director Steven Soderbergh) famously gained 30 pounds in 30 days, grew a beard, shaved his hairline —– and injured his back so severely shooting a torture scene that he was still hurt while directing and co-starring in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” about Edward R. Murrow.

Watching the finished product —– Gaghan had set up a private screening for him in Los Angeles —– Baer said he didn’t make the connection between his own life and what was on the screen.

“I was just absorbed by the narrative,” he said. But he believes Clooney accurately captured his sense of feeling defeated after serving his country for more than two decades, a sentiment that also permeates his book.

“What I really got from Bob was this unbelievable sadness,” Gaghan said. “He really did know how the world worked, and he really did seem like a wandering guy without a country, like an exile. And it was sad.”

Of the 300 or so people Gaghan talked to while researching “Syriana,” he said everyone clearly had some self-serving interest like money or power —– except Baer.

“It’s remarkable,” Gaghan said. “The guy I started with in the end was the only person that I thought actually had a sort of selfless motivation.”

When it’s suggested that the whole film is about motivations —– that each main character thinks his actions are for the greater good, but may end up causing great damage –— Gaghan responds, “Everybody, I think, tells the world they’re doing things for the right reasons.”

“They may even believe it,” Baer interjects.

“And they may even believe it most of the time,” Gaghan continues. “But I do think there’s a point that we all have a feeling inside of us that we know —– I mean, most people know —– when you’re just bending the rules a little bit, or you just cross the line a little bit, or you’re doing something that doesn’t feel quite right. In that moment you tell yourself, ‘It’s for my family, it’s so that I can be set for life so my kids can go to the good colleges.’ You give yourself an out, and it’s that little out that we give ourselves that I think that I tried to get in the film.”

While no specific moment from Baer’s book appears in “Syriana,” Gaghan included his own harrowing experience from a trip he took alone to Beirut in 2002.

He had just arrived and was going through customs when he got a call on his cell phone from “an acquaintance of an acquaintance of Bob’s” —– even though Baer had warned him not to trust anyone in Beirut.

The caller said he’d send a driver, but couldn’t tell him where he’d be going or what he’d be doing. Gaghan walked outside, got into the back seat of the car and was blindfolded and driven out to the suburbs. Little did he know he was on his way to meet Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon’s most senior Shiite Muslim cleric.

Baer said that’s standard procedure for meeting a Hezbollah sheik, which Fadlallah was then. Gaghan used it in the film for a scene in which Clooney’s character has a similar meeting.

“They took my phones, my belt, my backpack, my pens, notepads, everything. Blindfolded me, drove me,” he said. “And then you notice everyone has a gun, like, stuck in their waistband. The gate comes down, the driver doesn’t speak English, nobody speaks English — everyone’s speaking Arabic. They could be saying ……”

”’Let’s go ahead and kill him,”’ Baer offers.

Gaghan believes any number of episodes in Baer’s book would have made compelling films of their own, from his time in Beirut in the mid-1980s during the U.S. embassy bombing to being in northern Iraq in the mid-1990s, which prompted the FBI to investigate his involvement in an attempt to murder Saddam Hussein.

“But I felt like –— and I think Bob probably would agree —– that at the end of the day, all the groundwork was laid during those times for the sort of crisis period we’re in now,” Gaghan said. “Post-9/11, this guy Osama bin Laden is this rallying point, and all communication is breaking down with Iran, a lot of powerful rhetoric from the West, from America — it just seemed really great to contemporize that, to try to get what’s going on now.”

The best way to tell such a complicated story was through various threads because “his life crosses all these worlds,” Gaghan says.

“But never really part of it,” Baer adds.

“Yeah, but we’re looking at a big system. That was my experience coming out of ‘Traffic,’ is that when you try to talk about a system —– like if the system is the bad guy –— the whole movie is all gray area, there are no good guys or bad guys. The system itself is what you’re indicting.”

One Comment on “Revisiting Syriana

  1.  by  Acrylic Sweater

    Re: Movies about Geo-Political Subjects

    On the subject of looking at movies from ten years ago, from today’s perspective. It’s worth looking up a piece in ‘Kermode Uncut’ (British film critic who broadcasts on BBC radio station), called ‘Kermode Uncut: Beyond Criticism?’ from summer 2014. In the video blog, Mark Kermode critic offered Ken Loach film director the opportunity in the ‘Uncut’ video blog series, to respond to what mark Kermode had reported earlier about a Loach acceptance speech from the Cannes film festival that year (in which he had spoken about film critics). It’s an interesting comment by film director Ken Loach, in the short seven minute video blog. Because what Ken Loach talks about, is a need to allow the world into cinema. He noticed how film critics have a bad habit, of sliding into conversation about movies – where movies are compared only to other movies. Ken Loach asserted that the purpose of the film experience from the viewers perspective, is to bring their experience of the outside world with them, into the movie theatre.

    Mark Kermode, is one of those critics who will watch the same movie, as many as two or three times, before he has fully made up his mind about something. In fact, a lot of the video blogs by Kermode, are actually pieces in which he expresses the fact, that he changed his mind about a movie that he originally didn’t understand or didn’t like. One example of that was Barry Lyndon, which he had seen as a young person projected in a movie theatre. He didn’t like the movie, until he saw it projected in a theatre much later in life, and it was a whole different experience than seeing it on a television from a VCR player. Another example that Kermode gives, of where the viewer can bring something into the movie theatre with them (bring the outside world in, instead of just comparing movies to other movies), is in the work of film director Paul Thomas Anderson. He cited the example of ‘There Will Be Blood’. Having watched the movie two or three times, Kermode realized there was a story being told on the cinema screen that was about drilling for oil, about oil money paying for religion and about ruthless capitalism, all mixed up together. Except, instead of the story being about the ‘Middle East’, instead this was a story about the American frontier country in the later part of the nineteenth century.

    That’s the part of this comment, that relates back to the movie in question – the movie called Syriana (2005). I never would have matched it up with ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007). But apparently, on some level the two movies do share some connection. The point that Mark Kermode makes, is that Paul Thomas Anderson as a movie director, doesn’t try to beat the viewer over the head with this point. In other words, the viewer is enabled to bring things from the outside world, into the movie theatre experience with them, as they see fit or not. It is similar to the point that was made by Len Loach, in his seven minute length video blog, ‘Kermode Uncut: Beyond Criticism?’ Maybe Syriana is more explicit in the point it tries to make about geography, religion, politics and natural resources. Although, in ‘Syriana’ there is plenty left up to the discretion of the viewer too, in that movie experience. It’s just not as deeply buried as it was in ‘There Will Be Blood’. After all, it did take an expert like Kermode, no less than three viewings, before these levels of the film, started to appear to him.

    One of the things that a part-time critic such as Ben Mankiewicz does get constantly criticized for, is not seeing a movie. Or not knowing what other part of the cinematic ‘canon’ to compare a certain movie to. I.e. Mark Kermode himself for example, could explain all of the things that a Jason Bourne movie, owes it’s inspiration to, and what it is derivative from. That’s interesting. But in getting too caught up in that, sometimes critics are unable to look at a piece of work, from the perspective that Ken Loach is talking about. One of the things that can make Ben Mankiewicz a great film critic, is the fact that he isn’t a full time film critic. And that is sadly lacking sometimes, in reviews even made by panels of film critic experts, because there is no non-full time critic amongst them. I’d provide one example of that on WTF reviews, a movie such as ‘Burnt’ reviewed in October 2015, which had starred Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller. In the review, there are two high powered expert film critics, who launch straight off the bat, comparing ‘Burnt’ movie about a chef in London, to several other movies. In other words, it’s hard for film critics sometimes to resist that temptation, to look at movies in relation to other ones.

    What was clear however, when listening to the review in October 2015, is that the film critics hadn’t really seen the movie. It’s like ‘speed reading’. They hadn’t got the real story that was going on in the film, ‘Burnt’. It was really a story about the character played by Bradley Copper, who was once a great chef in London, and had had a lot of success back in the day. He simply shows up one day, and expects to jump straight back on the horse again, having gone through rehabilitation, and expect to become the center of attention as a chef in London. The problem is, the London or Paris, in which he had grown up (lots and lots of heat administered to food, to cook it very well), was not the London or Paris of the present day. Then you have the character of Sienna Miller. Sienna Miller was a chef who was part of the contemporary philosophy and way of doing things, the ‘new wave’. And the movie is a story about how difficult it can be often, for even the most expert people in something, to make a difficult transition, when the world changes around them. The story is one about, the challenge of trying to facilitate a ‘bridge of understanding’, a conversation, between the succeeding generation of great culinary artists, and the preceding one.

    And that’s a universal theme, in art, in enterprise, in so many facets of life. Irish actor Gabriel Bryne spoke about this also, when receiving a lifetime award for acting here in Ireland. He noted, that celebrity was strange, because he remembered he had not changed. What did change, was the world around him. I.e. That’s the part, that enables the viewer of the movie, ‘Burnt’ to bring something about the outside world into the experience of going into a cinema with them. And that singularly, is the part when you watch the WTF review from October 2015, that isn’t there. Because the critics miss the central point of the movie (because critics watch a film once, speed read the movie), and then discuss the movie, in relation to other movies. The critics had made up their mind, this movie is just a second rate re-make of ‘X’ or ‘Y’, so I really don’t have to concentrate on watching this. I can draw some assumptions, and assume that it’s about, instead of actually going through the experience. That’s the one Achilles Heel of film criticism as a profession it would appear. And if one were to trawl through the archives now of many reviews (albeit, ‘Burnt’ isn’t a very important movie, but it is nonetheless a good movie and deserves a better effort in terms of it’s review), one would very easily be able to mine that vein, that Ken Loach had talked about above. I just think that some of the movie reviews, that professional movie review critics do, should come with some kind of ‘health warning’. I.e. This is just a sample tasting of the movie. And critics, by definition, have to watch far too many movies.

    One thing that Ken Loach said was funny. He mentioned, that a leading newspaper film critic in London, said that one of Loach’s movies was based on three other movies, by other directors. Although, Ken Loach claimed, that he’d never seen two of the other three movies. And I think that’s really what encouraged Loach as a director, to take a pot shot at critics in his speech in Cannes.

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