''Syriana," the political thriller which opens today, was crafted to be a wilderness of mirrors. It is, in spades, starting with the title. No one seems to know what it means.
''That's a Gaghan question," says Jeffrey Wright, who plays a Washington, D.C., lawyer in the film.
But then everything about the movie is a Gaghan question. Stephen Gaghan wrote and directed ''Syriana" with intellectual and moral mayhem in mind. His bleak vision, more than any of the fine on-screen performances from heavyweights like George Clooney, is the soul of the effort. ''To be overwhelmed by the film -- that was his intention," says Wright.
''I think it's really important to go out of the theater wondering about its meaning," confirms Gaghan by phone. There's plenty to wonder about. His movie plumbs the game of geopolitical powerball played by Big Oil, the US government, and competing Mideast powerbrokers. Most have the integrity of a gnat and wallow in a world of espionage, assassination, and terrorism.
''Everything isn't explained in two hours," he concedes. ''The world is a big, complex, inscrutable place. Why take a complex world and reduce it to simple truths? That's kind of false."
(The filming of ''Syriana" was as complex as the meat of the movie. It was shot at 220 locations on four continents in five languages.)
For the record, the title ''Syriana" is, first, a metaphor, says Gaghan, like the title of the movie ''Brazil." ''It is the perpetual dream of the West to re-create the East to suit its purposes." It is also a specific term he heard in Washington think tanks while doing research for the film: ''It's about creating a new country with parts of Iran, Iraq, and Syria." (Iraq is never mentioned in the movie. ''It's too time-sensitive," he says.)
Like his mentor Steven Soderbergh, Gaghan is a pure writer-director who craves control of both arenas. ''I can't separate the two," he says, which is why he'll do both honors again on his next project, a film version of Malcolm Gladwell's ''Blink."
Talk movies with Gaghan and hold on. Ask about the provenance of ''Syriana" and he'll take you back to paranoid thrillers of the '70s, like Alan Pakula's ''The Parallax View" and Sydney Pollack's ''Three Days of the Condor." He'll throw in Bertolucci's ''The Conformist" too. (Gaghan considers the late Pakula, who also directed ''Klute" and ''All the President's Men," to be ''hall of fame.")
''I still don't understand everything in 'The Parallax View' and I've seen it 10 times," he says about the film in which Warren Beatty plays a reporter who stumbles onto a murderous corporate conspiracy.
In the last five minutes of ''Condor," recalls Gaghan, a former CIA analyst played by Robert Redford stands on the steps of the New York Times building with a story to tell of a rogue government operation responsible for senseless murders. A CIA officer, played by Cliff Robertson, asks him, ''What makes you think they're going to listen?"
''Fade out," says Gaghan. ''It's 30 years later and there's no punch line now. It's the starting point."
The alliances in ''Syriana" are uniformly unholy. Oil companies obsessed with drilling rights are in bed with a US government obsessed with the primacy of cheap oil at the expense of support for Arab reformers. Muslim extremists recruit unemployed Pakistani workers for terrorist attacks. This is a cynical world, says Gaghan, but ''Syriana" is not a cynical movie. He denies it's even pessimistic, which is a bit much.
Gaghan, 40, comes across as both savvy and utopian. He is outraged at what he sees around him, and his rage flows in torrential riffs. His take on the scene at the annual White House Correspondents dinner is this: ''Pigs feeding at the trough."
Timing is everything, and smack dab in the middle of the promotion of ''Syriana" comes the news that Congressman Randy Cunningham of California took millions in bribes from a defense contractor. Cunningham stands as Exhibit A in Gaghan's morally challenged world.
''He's got a boat called 'the Dukester' and he drives a Rolls Royce on a congressman's salary," fumes Gaghan. ''As a citizen, I'm furious." The people of the Mideast fare no better under the rancid, autocratic regimes there, he adds: ''If I were a Saudi citizen, I'd be furious too."
His regard for the Bush administration is low in the extreme, yet he maintains the corruption he finds pervasive in Washington today provides great context for his movie.
''You've got the vice president and [Majority Leader Tom] DeLay and [lobbyist Jack] Abramoff. It's the lingua franca now," he says about the moral torpor of the political figures under fire. So would ''Syriana" have been a tougher sell during the Clinton years? Absolutely, he replies: ''It was a numb time. It was full of shopping and stock options."
The only hero he met during his research in this gamy world, says Gaghan, is Robert Baer, the former CIA Mideast operative from whose book, ''See No Evil," ''Syriana" is ''suggested." (A classic Hollywood verb to mask apparent attribution.) Gaghan traveled extensively with Baer in the Mideast, Europe, and Washington. What he came away with is this: ''Baer believed in what he was doing, and I heard from so many people how effective this guy was." Baer was never motivated by money, he adds, and his incorruptibility made him a dangerous man.
Gaghan won an Oscar for his dense screenplay of ''Traffic," released in 2000, and he has built another such web of intersecting story lines in ''Syriana" whose complexity overwhelms us. He did so because he realized after a year and a half of research that clarity had no business intruding in his movie. There was simply no terra firma on which to build it.
''I kept meeting people -- in D.C., Beirut, the Persian Gulf -- who spoke in full paragraphs. They were so convincing -- really brilliant men -- and they scared the hell out of me," he says. Men like Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser, who made a persuasive case in The New Yorker for the pursuit of realism above all else in American foreign policy.
''Then I talk to Paul Wolfowitz who said, 'No, this is a civilizational conflict we're in on.' That was very compelling too," he continues. ''Then I woke up with this crazy insight: What if nobody knows what's going on?"
Sam Allis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org