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The film's opening onscreen credits are intercut with images of Pakistani immigrants milling around in a desert as they push their way onto a bus. Toward the end of the film, the screen goes white when "Wasim Ahmed Khan" and "Farooq" slam into the tanker with the missile. Although the plot of Syriana unfolds in approximate chronological order, the various storylines are interwoven, with the action switching back and forth among them.
Syriana was very loosely based on the 2002 book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism by Robert Baer, who, under the name Bob Baer, also has a small role in the film as a security guard. The memoir chronicles Baer's experiences working in the Middle East as a case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency's Directorate of Operations from 1976-1997. According to presskit materials in the film's production file at the AMPAS Library, after optioning the rights to Baer's book, George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh approached Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay for Soderbergh's 2001 film Traffic (see below), about writing a screenplay based on the book. According to a quote by Gaghan in the presskit, he became interested in the machinations of the oil industry while working on Traffic, because, at that time, "the Pentagon's anti-terrorism and anti-narcotics branches were the same division." While researching Traffic, Gaghan began to notice parallels between the trafficking of drugs and the power plays of the oil industry.
According to Gaghan, the only thing he retained from Baer's book was the idea that the main character was a CIA agent who had worked in the Middle East for most of his career. The presskit noted that Gaghan researched Syriana for a year before starting the screenplay, speaking with petroleum industry personnel in Lebanon, Syria, Dubai, North Africa, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States. Baer also accompanied Gaghan to the Middle East, where he introduced him to oil traders, CIA operatives, arms dealers and the leader of the Islamic movement Hezbollah. The word "Syriana" is a term used by Washington think-tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East. Gaghan noted that he selected the title Syriana for his screenplay because it refers to the "fallacious dream that you can successfully remake nation-states in your own image."
According to various articles reprinted on Clooney's personal website, the original version of Syriana ran two and a half hours. After it was shown to test audiences, a decision was made to tighten up the storyline and shorten the length of the film. July 2004 news items in Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter yield the following information about the material that was cut: According to the news items and a preliminary script review featured on the Clooney website, in one of the story lines cut from the released film, Michelle Monaghan portrayed "Mary Alice Johnson," a beauty pageant queen who becomes the lover of "Raja Salaam," an oil magnate working with the royal family. Chris McDonald played Mary Alice's father. In another story line eliminated from the released film, Greta Scacchi played "Bob Barnes's" embittered wife. According to a Daily Variety news item and Hollywood Reporter production chart published in August 2004, Dagmara Domincyk was cast, but she does not appear in the released film. Although the preliminary script review noted that Gina Gershon was in the cast, Gershon does not appear in the released film.
Syriana was a production of Section Eight, a company partnered by Soderbergh and Clooney. According to a January 2005 New York Times article, Clooney and Soderbergh pitched their idea for forming Section Eight to Warner Brothers Pictures, which was seeking producers with potential "Oscar cachet." In 2000, Warners gave the team an office on the lot as well as paid their overhead costs. Syriana was co-financed by Participant Productions, a production company founded by eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll in January 2004 to "stimulate involvement in social issues," according to a November 15, 2005 Los Angeles Times article. According to the company's mission statement on its website, "Participant exists to tell compelling, entertaining stories that also create awareness of the real issues that shape our lives. We seek to entertain our audiences first, then to invite them to participate in making a difference next." To this end, Participant has established a website entitled www.participate.net. In conjunction with the release of Syriana, the website features a series of links to other sites dealing with topics such as "learning how to reduce your dependence on oil" and "telling Congress it's time for an oil change."
According to the presskit, location shooting in the United States was done at the 777 Ranch in Hondo, TX, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore and Annapolis, MD. Overseas location filming took place in Casablanca, Morocco, which stood in for Tehran and Beirut; and Geneva, Switzerland at the English Garden on the left bank of Lake Geneva and at the Cimetire des Rois, where "Max Woodman's" funeral was shot. The company filmed for four weeks in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where The Royal Mirage Hotel stood in for the Marbella Estate home of the "Emir," and the Al-Maha Resort served as the setting for "Nasir's" meeting with "Bryan Woodman." To insure authenticity, a team of translators and dialect coaches were hired to tutor the actors in the Arabic, Urdu and Farsi dialects used in the film.
Syriana marked the American screen debut of actor Mazhar Munir, who played "Wasim." The film also marked the motion picture debut of journalist Jon Lee Anderson, the correspondent who covered the Iraq war for The New Yorker. Soderbergh, Clooney and Matt Damon had previously worked together on Ocean's Eleven (2001), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and Ocean's Twelve (2004), all Section Eight productions.
In addition to being selected as one of AFI's ten Movies of the Year for 2005, Syriana received two Academy Award nominations, one for Clooney, who received the award for Best Supporting Actor, and the other Gaghan, who was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Gaghan won the National Board of Review's award for Best Adapted Screenplay and was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award for Best Adapted Screenplay. In addition, Gaghan and Baer were nominated for a USC Scripter Award. Clooney received the Golden Globe for Supporting Actor as well as a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role. The film also was nominated for a Golden Globe for Original Score (Alexandre Desplat).