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Director and CIA officer team up for ‘Syriana’

Stephen Gaghan tells the story he learned through meeting Robert Baer
/ Source: The Associated Press

“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.

Like a ‘college roadtrip’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.

Complicated motivationWatching 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.

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“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.”

Gaghan’s harrowing tripWhile 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.”