Stephen Gaghan has a broad worldview, one that is reflected in his Oscar(tm)-winning screenplay for TRAFFIC and now, even more superbly, in SYRIANA, which is also his directorial debut. This multi-faceted story of intrigue and deception surrounding the rights to an oil field in an unnamed Persian Gulf country is gripping, surprising, and scathingly intelligent.
When we spoke on November 29, 2005, he showed his commitment to both what he learned from researching SYRIANA and from directing it. He wouldn’t start talking until he had turned out the lights in the room, preferring (1) to not waste energy, and (2) the more aesthetically pleasing quality of the natural light. From there, the conversation ranged from the nature of truth, unexpected connections among class traitors, and an impromptu, but very apt, tribute to that classic film, THE PRINCESS BRIDE.
At two different points during SYRIANA, two different men in traditional Arab robes sits on a floor surrounded by two different sets of rapt listeners sitting in a circle. Each explains with perfect conviction how to make the world a better place. One is an eloquent imam in a poverty-stricken madrassa, advocating a return to the religious fundamentalism of several centuries ago, the other is a western-educated, prince preaching the liberal philosophy of the 21st century. Each is convinced that he is speaking an unassailable truth, and yet one that is mutually exclusive to the other. To add to the complexity, both want the same thing, the west to leave their country, not just the military, but the oil companies who are pulling strings everywhere. In addition, and to add to the complexity that is the hallmark of SYRIANA, those truths are mutually exclusive to the other truths expressed and passionately defended in the course of the film, and which truth resonates at first with any one person in the audience has more to do with the baggage he or she came in with than it does with anything approaching an absolute. That is what is so brilliant and so maddening about Stephen Gaghan’s film. There are no easy answers and innocents with pure hearts are caught in the crossfire of the cross purposes. Gaghan, bless him, doesn’t believe in dumbing things down.