Syriana (2005): Clooney on his Oscar-Winning Political Film

Writer-director Stephen Gaghan, winner of the 2000 Screenplay Oscar for Traffic, has chosen as his follow-up project “Syriana,” a political thriller that unfolds against the intrigues and corruption of the global oil industry.

From the players brokering back-room deals in Washington to the men toiling in the old fields of the Persian Gulf, the film’s multiple storylines weave together a complex tale that illuminates the consequences of the fierce pursuit of wealth and power.

George Clooney, who’s also one of the producers, plays the lead, Bob Barnes, a vet CI agent nearing the end of a long and respectable career, with a son headed for college and the possibility of spending the latter days of his service in a cushy desk job. A devoted man, Bob has always believed that his work benefits his government and makes his country a safer place. His character is loosely based on CIA agent Robert Baer, who reported about his experience in his memoir, See No Evil.

On the Book

The book was fascinating and the more time we spent with it, the more we discovered there was actually another story to be told beyond the one in the book. We saw the potential for Syriana to be made in the fashion of the films of the mid-1960s and early 1970s that were willing to discuss the failures of the government as if they were failures of all of us, not just a particular party or group.

The Film’s Goal

Our chief intent was to tell a compelling story that also reflected the complexity and ambiguity of our current situation, one that explores diverse points of view, while not championing any one perspective as the truth.

Debate for Debate’s Sake

We are not trying to preach to anyone with this film. Movies at their best can initiate discussions, obviously, in this case, discussions about world dependency on oil, but Syriana also opens discussions about corruption, about the effectiveness of the CIA, about any number of things. You want people to be standing around the water cooler the next day talking about it, saying, here’s what I agree with, or here’s where theyre wrong. We need that discussion.

The Stellar Cast

Gaghan is such an excellent writer that when we sent the script out, the first thing that happened was everyone we sent it to wanted in. And that doesn’t happen very often. We were saying to actors who used to carry movies, Listen, it’s not a large part, and theyd come back saying, I don’t care. I just want to be in this. It’s truly and ensemble piece. The star of this film is the screenplay that Gaghan wrote.

On his Role

I play vet CIA operative Bob Barnes, who made his career working deep within the Middle East in the 1980s. As a member of rapidly dwindling number of operatives in the area, Bob is one of only a handful of agents capable of infiltrating on that level.

CIA in the Middle East

One of the aspects of Bob’s storyline is the systematic deconstruction of the CIA and what the effects of that are. There are not many Arab-speaking operatives left in the Middle East, which is a danger. The idea is that we are finished with the Cold War and that we don’t need surveillance anymore, we don’t need boots on the ground, i.e., CIA operatives. And so Bob gets caught in what is basically a downsizing.

Belief Vs. Disillusionment

Bob is a fascinating character because he’s a true believer. He’s not a cynic. He believes that his work is the right thing to do, that it helps his country. But he becomes disillusioned because, basically, the company he’s devoted his life to lets him down.

Baer as Role Model

While Robert Baer served as the departure point for my character, I did not base my characterization on Baer. Rather, I took the essence of the CIA foot soldier and interpreted it into a unique character that isn’t strictly beholden to any real-life model.

Character Versus Story

We wanted to let the character serve the story rather than the other way round. That freed me quite a bit because I was no longer playing a living person. Instead, I was dealing directly with the issues that the movie brought up. I didn’t have to be connected with an accurate depiction of a particular person, so I could concentrate more on reacting honestly to the broader questions that were raising.

Gaining Weight for the Role

It was interesting being completely anonymous. I have tried other disguises before and they haven’t worked. But if you put on 30 pounds and grow a thick beard, you can walk into any restaurant in town and not get a table.

Speaking Arabic

I took lessons in Arabic from Samia Adnan, a Sudanese linguistics professor from London, who served as the film’s main dialect coach. It’s interesting, because there’s no Latin derivative, nothing you can latch on to. If you’re speaking Italian, which I’m trying to learn, or any of the European languages, there are words, there are sounds that are sort of familiar. I had to learn some Farsi; I had to learn to say some things in Arabic which, at first, I just learned phonetically. But it can’t just be this disconnected jumble of words. So, you have to find ways to connect them, to make them expressive. It was tricky–and fun.

Clooney as Producer and Director

Clooney is partnered with director Steven Soderbergh in the film and TV production company, Section Eight. The company most recently produced Good Night, and Good Luck, about the renowned broadcaster Edward R. Murrow’s legendary on-air confrontations with Senator Joseph McCarthy, which helped bring down the infamous politician and his anti-Communist witch-hunting. Clooney co-wrote, directed, and co-stars (with David Strathairn) in “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

Clooney made his feature directorial debut in 2002 with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

He has also served as an exec producer of Chris Nolan’s “Insomnia” and Todd Haynes’ Oscar nominated, “Far From Heaven.”