The young son of an oil-industry analyst (Matt Damon) dies while playing in an Arab client's swimming pool. A lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) working for a big oil company is on the cusp of an industry-altering merger. A CIA agent (George Clooney) working in the Middle East follows a tip that could lead him to a known terrorist.
If all this sounds like Traffic, but set in the oil world instead of the drug world, there's good reason: Syriana, based on former government operative Robert Baer's 2002 book, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, Traffic's Oscar-winning screenwriter. The critical tome caught the eye of Clooney and his Section Eight producing partner, Steven Soderbergh (a.k.a. Traffic's director). ''For us, the interesting thing was that it was damning, but not of this administration in particular; it was damning of the Clinton administration, the Carter administration,'' Clooney says. ''We thought it was political but politically fair because it sort of went after everybody.''
The film isn't meant to play like an episode of Hardball. ''Our story line is about the way people grieve in a couple,'' says Amanda Peet, who plays Damon's distraught wife. ''I feel betrayed by him because I don't think he wants to grieve enough. Gaghan can take someone's tiny little personal tragedy and show how it connects to this large-scale political tragedy. I believe in that.''
Syriana will also forever be known as the film that turned the former Sexiest Man Alive into a walrus. After wrapping Ocean's Twelve, Clooney had 30 days to gain 35 pounds for the role. ''My job was to get fat quick and grow a beard and shave my hairline back,'' says the actor. ''It was actually like doing an athletic stunt because it was like eight meals a day, just as hard and fast as you can eat. It really screwed with my health. I know people have done it before, but I don't know that they've done it at 44. You know, I think that was my mistake.''