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Behind the Oil Curtain 

Stephen Gaghan did drugs; now he’s onto petroleum

Thursday, Nov 24 2005
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Photo by Wild Don Lewis
Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan recently had an idea for a photography project: He would take an object apart and photograph its various pieces. “I was telling a friend of mine about it,” Gaghan says. “I was thinking of some of those early Ruscha paintings, like this one where, instead of coming up with a subject and painting it, he painted the tools that he was going to use to paint his subject.” The friend, himself a painter, laughed. When Gaghan asked him why, he told him, “Every single thing you do and talk about is the same thing: You’re always concerned with how something works, and you want to take it apart to figure it out.”

Guilty as charged. In his two strongest projects to date, Gaghan has married a gift for crafting compulsively involving narratives to an almost fetishistic scrutiny of the inner workings of complex systems. In his Oscar-winning screenplay for Stephen Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), he canvassed the international cocaine trade as it reached from billionaire Mexican kingpins to rebellious American teens. Now, in Syriana, which Gaghan also directed, he brings a similarly exhaustive approach to an investigation of an even more powerful narcotic: Middle Eastern oil and its impact on everyone from Washington, D.C., power brokers to Pakistani immigrants working the Persian Gulf’s oil rigs.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Gaghan’s own history as a former drug addict influenced both movies. “I knew that when the dealer’s putting out the good stuff and you’re sitting there in his kitchen, you don’t question him about his personal life — about the malnourished kids in the corner watching the cartoon channel while there’s a handgun on the table,” the tall, rail-thin, 40-year-old Gaghan tells me over lunch at his Malibu home. “When I started thinking about our dependence on oil, it seemed like oil also came from some pretty screwed-up places that you didn’t want to examine too closely.”

Then September 11 happened and Gaghan, like a lot of people, got scared. “For a long time, it had seemed to me like Francis Fukuyama was right,” he says. “History was over. Democracy and capitalism had won. We could all stop worrying about anything except shopping. Then the buildings came down and we tossed out 50 years of bilateral foreign policy for a unilateral foreign policy which essentially says: ‘If we think you’re fucking with us anywhere in the world, we’re going to take you out and we’re going to ask questions later.’ So now I have small children, I’m in the back seat of this car called America, the car is taking a sharp right turn and I’m in the back holding on going, ‘Whoa! History over? It’s just starting!’?”

Syriana began to germinate a short time later, when Gaghan read See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, Robert Baer’s unguarded memoir of his 21 years as a CIA case officer, and a damning critique of how the Agency forsook its intelligence-gathering mission in the years leading up to 9/11. “There was a section in there about an oil middleman named Roger Tamraz, who had contributed $300,000 to Bill Clinton’s campaign fund,” Gaghan recalls. “He got called before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and said, ‘I have pictures of myself shaking hands with Bill Clinton — it looks like we’re friends and we know each other. It’s incredibly valuable for my business.’ And I thought: Yeah, exactly. Here’s somebody calling a spade a spade. Cat’s out of the bag. You can buy the U.S. government. For these people who donate millions of dollars to political campaigns, it’s not just like charity — they want my government to provide services in kind.

“Furthermore, I thought it was very interesting that this anecdote would be told in a mid-level CIA officer’s autobiography, and then I started to think how there were a lot of really odd characters in there. It seemed like maybe there was a way to tie up a lot of the things I’d been thinking about — the war on terror, crony capitalism, the oil business, campaign finance reform — into one big, sprawling thing.”

Syriana is nothing if not sprawling — there are more than 70 speaking parts (in a cacophony of different languages) and the film’s primary storyline, about the proposed merger of two Texas-based oil companies, gives way to somewhere near a dozen intersecting subplots. Yet, for all its epic scope — Gaghan says that at the height of the writing process, the walls of his house were papered with colored note cards — Syriana delivers on its ad-copy promise that “Everything is connected.” Regardless of what country we find ourselves in or what language is being spoken, almost every scene in the film serves as a snapshot of the costs — financial, political and human — of doing business in a world that ever more resembles one giant multinational corporation called America Inc.

“I think for Americans, the weight of empire doesn’t rest so easily on our shoulders,” says Gaghan. “We wear the white hat psychologically. And it’s true that we do a lot of good around the world, and our stable democracy is a real beacon for a lot of people. When we waver, when we’re secretly using Soviet gulags — the same exact ones that Solzhenitsyn wrote about — to secretly torture people... it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal for the world, but it’s a big deal for us sitting here right now. And I think it’s something we don’t want to think about — that the people who saved Europe from the Nazis are the same people who are grabbing often innocent people off the street simply because of the color of their skin and their religious identity. It doesn’t seem to be what America was founded on, even though I’m also a huge believer in ‘by any means necessary.’ I’m an American. I want to win.”

To read Ella Taylor's review of Syriana, click here.

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Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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