George Clooney isn't putting his weight behind his new political thriller "Syriana" just because he gained 35 pounds for the part ("The sad thing is that I was able to — it was far too easy!"). It's not because Clooney's the film's star — it's a true ensemble piece, with Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper and many others sharing screen time. And it's also not because Clooney's one of the executive producers. It's because, like his CIA agent character Bob Barnes, he's a true believer — and he has the most to lose.
"I got beat up pretty well when I said we should ask some questions about going to war," Clooney said, "got put on the cover of a magazine, got called a traitor. Bill O'Reilly said my career was over because of my political views. But we're not preaching here, we're asking questions. We're saying, 'Here are some issues, we don't have the answers, but we believe the questions should be asked, and we're not going to be called unpatriotic for asking.' "
"Syriana" — a title that refers to a think-tank dream of reshaping the Middle East into a region controlled by the U.S. — isn't dreamlike at all, as it takes place in the here and now. It's a complex interweaving of multiple narratives involving characters who take part in the oil business: sheiks in the Gulf, Texas businessmen negotiating for drilling rights, lawyers investigating company mergers, workers in the oil fields and energy analysts trying to make sense of it all. And if that sounds too dry for you, consider this: There's corruption everywhere, and the deals that are brokered behind closed doors — whether they intend to or not — lead to orders of assassination, terrorism and torture (Clooney's character, in one horrific scene, gets his fingernails pulled out one by one). Written and directed by "Traffic" scribe Stephen Gaghan, it's like "Traffic" in that everything's connected, only instead of the drug trade, it's the oil trade. Or, as the filmmakers and cast call it, our oil addiction.
"If you look above the fold in The New York Times, one or two of the stories every day have some relation to what the movie's about," said Matt Damon, who plays an energy analyst who has some radical suggestions for his Gulf country client. "I think Hollywood tends to underestimate the moviegoer. We don't think it's too smart for people, we just don't. We think this is for everybody."
"It happens to be tomorrow's news," said Alexander Siddig, who plays reformist Prince Nasir Al-Subaai, who decides to grant drilling rights in his country to the highest bidder, instead of the U.S., setting into play a dangerous chain of events that no one can foresee. "The Chinese are really making deals all over the Middle East for oil which easily could be American, if America was prepared to make the right deal. But China is prepared to bend over backwards."
Clooney and his cast's hope is that the movie will spark a dialogue. So many ideas are raised, such as what U.S. interests really are in the Middle East. Do we want them to share Western values, be democratic and capitalist, or do we just want continued access to their oil? If they have the right to choose, and they don't choose us, what then? At what price comes cheap oil? This price gets a very human face in the film, through a plotline involving two Pakistani migrant workers who are laid off from an oil refinery, one of whom ends up as a suicide bomber. Clooney says they're not glorifying his choice, but seeking to understand it: "If we're going to war against an idea, we have to understand that idea."
"There has to be a battle of ideas," Damon said.
"And there needs to be a thirst for information," Clooney said.
"We need to start thinking about conservation, alternative energy sources and stuff like that," Damon said. "I drive a hybrid car, it's a terrific car, and look, I used to drive a SUV, but if you drive a giant Suburban, you have to ask yourself, 'What are we doing?' We can save so much, and if [hybrid cars] cost a little more, you make that up by what you're not paying at the gas pump."
"I drive an all-electric car," Clooney said. "It goes 0 to 60 in four seconds. Faster than a Porsche Turbo, and it's electric. But the point being that sooner or later, 30 to 40 years from now, when the oil's gone, we're going to have to have that conversation then, so why not start having it now?"
But as much as Clooney wants people to have this conversation, he realizes his limitations. He's not a politician, he can't change policy — heck, he can't even campaign for those who he wants to see making those policies, lest it backfire. "My father ran for Congress, and I couldn't campaign for him," Clooney said. "I would have hurt him. Kerry asked me to ride on the train with him after he was nominated. I said, 'I would love for you to win, I'm a big old Democrat, but I will hurt you being on that train.' Hollywood versus the heartland, I understand that.
"But if being famous means I can get the spotlight shone wherever I go," Clooney continued, "I do it for tsunami benefits, the 9/11 telethon, the G8 Summit. I'm the one taking the risk, no one else, you try to do it judiciously, where it won't do harm. But I think this film can spark debate. We showed it to a lot of neocons who agreed with the film, because this is about 50 years of failed policies. This isn't about the last five years."
"Syriana" opens in New York on November 23 and will be released wide on December 9.
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