REPORTER: Thom Cookes
SYRIANA TRAILER, WARNER BROTHERS: Imagine 30% of America unable to heat their houses, or gasoline – $20 a gallon at the pump.
It’s running out, and 90% percent of what’s left is in the Middle East. This is a fight to the death.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy, and here we have a serious problem – America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.
In a case of life imitating art George Bush’s recent State of the Union address could have been drawn straight from the script of a new Hollywood movie.
SYRIANA TRAILER: You want to know what the business world thinks of you? We think that 100 years ago you were living out here in tents in the desert chopping each other’s heads off, and that’s exactly where you’re going to be in another 100, so yes, on behalf of my firm, I accept your money.
‘Syriana’ examines how America’s hunger for oil has warped its foreign policy, leading to political instability and endemic corruption.
SYRIANA TRAILER: Corruption? Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why we win.
But ‘Syriana’, which stars George Clooney, is just one of a wave of highly political and socially-aware films that have come out of Hollywood over the last year.
GEORGE CLOONEY: I don’t know that we’re trying to enlighten anybody, we just want to keep opening discussions. We don’t want to preach to anyone, because that never works. You know, you can’t say to someone, “Look what’s going on here,” because they’ll either, not want to know or say they knew already and, “Don’t preach to me”. All we want to do is continually open the discussions.
GOODNIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, TRAILER: You know it occurs to me we might not get away with this one.
‘Goodnight and Good Luck’, written, directed by and also starring George Clooney, revisits the communist witch hunts of the 1950s. It shows how civil liberties can be eroded by threats to national security.
GOODNIGHT AND GOOD LUCK: We proclaim ourselves, indeed as we are, the defenders of freedom wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
‘North Country’, starring Charlize Theron, tackles the issue of sexual discrimination at work.
NORTH COUNTRY, TRAILER: If she wins, this will affect every company in America.
And ‘Murderball’, a documentary about the US wheelchair rugby team, challenges stereotypes of disability.
MURDERBALL, TRAILER: Everyone’s like, “What’s your approach, Scott? How do you work these women?” And I’m like, “The more pitiful I am, the more the women like me.”
All four of these films have been extraordinarily successful, both critically and at the box office. All have been nominated for Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards and all were largely funded by this man, Canadian billionaire Jeff Skoll.
JEFF SKOLL: Now we think that the opportunity to leverage the power of storytelling through media – through film and TV – is incredibly profound. We believe that if these stories are well told, people will want to get involved will want to make a difference, and then to give them the opportunity to make that difference in a systematic way, with partners who can really help facilitate those changes is really a great thing to do.
Each of the films that Skoll funds through his company Participant Productions has a grass-roots activist campaign built around it. After making billions as one of the founders of the online auction site eBay, he’s now using his Internet and business savvy to build a hub for political and social activists.
JEFF SKOLL: Through our campaign on ‘Syriana’, which we call Oil Change, we give people education about how they can offset the carbon from their cars, or lobby for investment in alternative power, but the underlying theme is that everybody has the opportunity to make a difference in this much bigger global equation, and we think ‘Syriana’ is the perfect vehicle to do that.
In each of his film-based campaigns, Skoll teams up with lobby groups already working on the issues. With the ‘Syriana’ Oil Change campaign this included the Natural Resource Defence Council, or NRDC.
DAN HINERFIELD, NRDC: Everybody has experienced walking out of a movie that they loved, that thought was moving, and feeling, “Something needs to be done about that.” And so often that emotion fritters away over the next few days and three weeks later you’ve completely forgotten about it.
Part of what we are trying to do with Oil Change is to capture those people who are walking out of this incredibly powerful movie and say to them, “Here’s something that you can actually do “about the way that you feel right now.”
The NRDC itself is no stranger to Hollywood. The Los Angeles office is named after board member Robert Redford and Dan Hinerfeld shows me into the Leonardo DiCaprio e-Activism Zone to talk.
DAN HINERFIELD: DiCaprio is very interested in turning just regular folks into environmental activists. He funded this part of our action centre here, which has a bunch of computers and you can come to the NRDC action pages and send messages to the Bush Administration, to the Schwarzenegger Administration.
REPORTER: Los Angeles really is a movie town, isn’t it? You’re in the DiCaprio centre sending an email to the Schwarzenegger Administration.
DAN HINERFIELD: It must sound funny, I guess, to foreign ears. There are now millions of people who are thinking about the issue of oil in a way that they didn’t previously, because of this movie. And a lot of that is just because they went to see the movie and part of it is because we have reached a very large group of people through the Oil Change online campaign.
Steve Gaghan directed ‘Syriana’ and is also up for an Oscar for writing the script. He’s deeply ambivalent about the lobbying campaign surrounding his film.
STEVE GAGHAN, DIRECTOR: I think my personal feeling – I know what my personal feeling is – is I would keep politics out of art and art out of politics. Art has to stand on its own and make its own messages.
Unfortunately films exist in Hollywood and films that cost money exist in the real world, and in the real world people who greenlight movies have passions, you know, they have things they’re interested in.
REPORTER: Are you comfortable with the fact, though, that there are lobbying groups – the NRDC, Sierra Club and so on – have got a fairly organised, structured, grass roots, activist campaign hung on the back of the film. Does that concern you at all?
STEVE GAGHAN: If a film like ‘Syriana’ – if that comes along and can be a tent pole that people can hang their little flags off of then I don’t see the damage.
REPORTER: You don’t have a problem?
GOODNIGHT AND GOOD LUCK: Well, that’s new. I don’t think you can call this a neutral piece.
The other side’s been represented rather well for the last couple of years.
We tried to talk to the air force. They haven’t gone on the record.
George Clooney’s involvement in two of the films backed by Jeff Skoll is no accident. He’s one Hollywood figure not afraid to stir up political controversy.
GOODNIGHT AND GOOD LUCK: Fellas, the next show is going to be about Senator McCarthy, and we’re going to go right at him.
Clooney’s ‘Good Night and Good Luck’ recreates the epic battle between crusading journalist Ed Murrow and anti-communist campaigner Senator Joe McCarthy, but substitute the word ‘communist’ for ‘terrorist’ and the film can be read as an attack on the Bush Administration’s war on terror.
GOODNIGHT AND GOOD LUCK: Ah, if none of us have ever read a dangerous book or had a friend who was different or never joined an organisation that advocated change we’d be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants.
We’re going to go with this story because the terror is right here in this room.
The most successful film that Jeff Skoll has backed so far, ‘Good Night and Good Luck’ has been nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award.
GOODNIGHT AND GOOD LUCK: I require no lectures from the junior senator from Wisconsin as to the dangers or terrors of communism.
David Strathairn, who plays journalist Ed Murrow, has been nominated for Best Actor.
GOODNIGHT AND GOOD LUCK: Good night, and good luck.
He has no problem with the film being used as a call to arms.
DAVID STRATHAIRN, ACTOR: I’m confident that those who are using this film as a platform for discussion are using it for the good of all. There’s this campaign that Participant Productions is using… ..there’s a website now called ‘Report It Now’ which is kind of like a neighbourhood watch, encouraging people to tell stories, relate news items in their own communities or their own states or something that are socially relevant issues.
After a screening of the film in Melbourne, Strathairn is quizzed by the audience about his public role.
QUESTION: George Clooney has stepped out and is engaged in the policy debate in America. Do you see it as your responsibility or artists’ responsibilities to engage in a public debate.
DAVID STRATHAIRN: Artists are citizens. They get vilified for, maybe, stepping outside of their so-called bailiwick and using what they do as a pulpit for – you know, their publicity, their popularity, their notoriety – I think it’s unfortunate that they do become or get vilified for that or accused for speaking out.
SYRIANA TRAILER: They let young people march in the street and the next day they shut down 50 newspapers.
For George Clooney being involved in ‘Syriana’ was motivated by a similar desire to take a stand.
GEORGE CLOONEY: We’re in a time right now where, you know… ..we always feel like it’s a good time to stand up and be counted for and to talk about things that are important to you. What’s important now is not trying to sell a happy families story, which this isn’t. There are issues and they’re certainly… ..it makes some of the moral issues, brings them all home.
Clooney plays a world-weary CIA officer, asked to assassinate an Arab prince who threatens US oil interests.
SYRIANA TRAILER: I want you to take him from his hotel, drug him, put him in the front of a car and run a truck into him at 50mph.
It’s good to have you back in town, Bob.
Clooney’s character rings true because it is largely based on a real person.
This is Bob Baer, former CIA officer-turned-author. He knows first-hand about assassination attempts and what the fallout can be.
REPORTER: Why did you leave the CIA?
BOB BAER,FORMER CIA OFFICER: Because of the mediocrity. I was bored and I wasn’t learning anything.
REPORTER: There was a more specific… ..what happened when…
BOB BAER: The specific reason was that, when I was in Iraq, with full authority I tried a coup against Saddam involving an armoured unit. Permission was withdrawn at the last minute. The armoured unit was sacrificed. Saddam put most of the people in an acid bath and killed them and when we came back – me and my…four other guys in the team – we were investigated for the attempted murder of Saddam. We were denied legal counsel, polygraphed by the FBI…
SYRIANA TRAILER: Why am I being investigated? Why am I being investigated, Fred?
Baer helped director Steve Gaghan research the film, taking him on a road trip across Europe and the Middle East and introducing him to the murky world of espionage and the arms trade.
BOB BAER: We met up in Nice and we started talking to people about the way the Middle East works, the way they look at the conflict, how they view the US, and I asked Steve, I said, “How deep do you want to go? Do you really want to meet people that have killed people? Arms dealers, oil people?” And he said, “Yes.”
Baer now lives high in the Rockies in Colorado. Now in his 50s he’s just taken up ice climbing.
Ever since September 11 the former spy has become something of a celebrity. Those who want to learn more about the dark side of US foreign policy in the Middle East regularly trek up here to meet him.
To a very large extent, ‘Syriana’ reflects Bob Baer’s world view.
BOB BAER: Yes, it is corruption, it is corruption. You know it’s a cliche but it is our addiction, the West’s addiction to cheap oil, and it’s a state asset and in order to pull it out of the ground you have to pay bribes. I don’t care if you’re European, Australian, any company in the world, if you want to work in the Middle East, you’ve got to pay bribes.
Don’t even bother trying to tell me that it doesn’t work that way because I’ve seen the deals, I’ve seen the telephone intercepts where these deals go on, I’ve seen in Kazakhstan, it’s the way business is done and it’s ultimately corrupting. It corrupts us and it corrupts them.
This is what I think and, I mean, this is why I’m doing it. I’m not a consultant on this movie, I’m not, you know, getting paid to do publicity, I just like it because it hit home the truth.
GEORGE CLOONEY: Bob’s a fascinating character because he’s a true believer. He wasn’t, sort of, this cynic. Bob really believed in, “This is the right thing to do, this helps my country.”
And I’m sure he did, you know. He doesn’t really go into the things he did in the CIA and it’s probably better that he doesn’t but you find that he was a true believer who became disillusioned because the Company, sort of, let him down eventually.
SYRIANA TRAILER: Your entire career, you’ve been used and probably never even known what for.
I didn’t used to need to know.
BOB BAER: You see in the Clooney part this guy that’s in a rough business, he’s an assassin and he comes back and it turns out he’s naive after all. He missed something – he missed a part of history. It changes the United States. And this is what he portrays, this is why he got the Golden Globe.
REPORTER: And that’s how you felt?
BOB BAER: It’s exactly how I felt – I could see myself in his face, like, “I can’t believe this shit going on.”
Bob Baer is impressed with the authenticity of the film, but it seems that, at least for the studio marketing department, it was a little bit too real. The publicity campaign for ‘Syriana’ leaves out a crucial part of the plot – a sympathetic portrayal of two suicide bombers who use one of these Stinger missiles in a “martyrdom operation”.
BOB BAER: Americans aren’t ready to hear it so they completely avoid it.
REPORTER: And yet they seem to be willing to talk about it in the European publicity.
BOB BAER: I think the European audience is more sophisticated. You know, at the premiere I told the chairman of Warner Bros, I said, “This is going to great in Europe.”
GOODNIGHT AND GOOD LUCK: We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this but unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognise that television, in the main, is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it may see a totally different picture to late.
At the Berlin Film Festival last week George Clooney was mobbed by some of his European fans. He was there to publicise ‘Syriana’ with Stephen Gaghan and Bob Baer.
GEORGE CLOONEY: Be nice to Bob, he’s CIA – you know what I’m saying? Better be nice to him.
It’s hard to tell yet whether George Clooney and Jeff Skoll will achieve their aim of turning movie-goers into political activists, but it’s certainly hard to ignore them.
GEORGE CLOONEY: People are sitting around tables and talking about political issues again, and that may be the one good thing that has come out of all of this sort of chaos that’s been coming out and I think that films are reflecting that.
Do I have hope? I always have hope. I am an optimist. I think we are cyclical. I think we lose our mind every 30 years in my country, but I think we get it back. That’s why I am actually very proud to be an American.