WHEN the towers came down on Sept. 11, Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer of "Traffic," realized in a flash that "Hollywood has done a terrible job creating villains." It all used to be so simple, so black and white. There were the good guys and the bad guys -- not people willing to blow themselves up in order to blow up their enemies.
This fall Gaghan and the Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad will release films that represent ambitious attempts to unearth the root causes of terrorism and suicide bombers. Both happen to come from the Warner Bros. conglomerate -- Gaghan's $50-million "Syriana," from big Warner's, and Abu-Assad's $2-million "Paradise Now," from Warner's new specialty division, Warner Independent. Both are thrillers in a sense -- but without the genre's usual catharsis. In a throwback to the politically engaged films of the '70s, the point isn't to reassure moviegoers but to provoke them.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 31, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Film's opening date -- An article in Sunday's Calendar about the film "Paradise Now" said it would arrive in theaters Nov. 4. It opened Friday.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 06, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Film's opening date -- An article last Sunday about the film "Paradise Now" said it was arriving in theaters Nov. 4. It opened Oct. 28.
"The principal advantage of someone like Saddam Hussein as a villain is you knew where you could find him," says Gaghan, whose film is due in theaters Nov. 23. "He was in a palace that was built by American contractors. We know all the secret doors. How he gets out. We can find him and drop bombs on him. After 9/11, there's this whole shift. Suddenly there's this guy" -- Gaghan, who's nursing coffee in a coffee shop near his home in Santa Monica, doesn't even name Osama bin Laden but is clearly talking about him. "He may or may not have been born in the Sudan. He may have been raised in Yemen. He may have lived in Saudi Arabia. He may be in Afghanistan. He may be in Pakistan. He may be in a cave. He's like the ether, or the Internet. He's everywhere, but from this cave he can deliver this incredible amount of destruction. I was just curious. Why are these people so angry? Is it just that we have military bases in Mecca?"
Two years before Gaghan began thinking about this question, Abu-Assad began researching suicide bombers. Like Gaghan, Abu-Assad, whose film comes to theaters Friday, is in his early 40s; and like Gaghan, he's tall, lean, loquacious and charismatic. Abu-Assad spent the first 19 years of his life in Palestine, before immigrating to the Netherlands. He was aware of suicide bombers -- as a kid, he had been fascinated with Japanese kamikazes and the Egyptian commandos in the 1967 war with Israel -- and now when he returns home to visit his well-to-do, liberal family, he sees the posters all over the streets of Gaza of the self-proclaimed martyrs who've blown themselves up, along with various Israeli soldiers and civilians. But as he began contemplating the topic, he realized how ignorant he actually was.
"It makes you more frightened when you discover you don't know anything," he says over dinner in Los Angeles during a recent publicity tour, "how much you make an image from fear, which is not a realistic image. It's so complex a deed -- at the same time you kill yourself, you become a killer."
Gaghan's film, which he also directed, is a far-reaching examination of what he calls the drug of the 20th century: oil. Structured like "Traffic," with overlapping story lines, it examines the corrosive and corrupting impact of the search for black gold -- from oilmen in Texas to lobbyists and lawyers in Washington, oil traders in Geneva, corrupt and progressive sheiks, CIA agents, disenfranchised Pakistani oil workers, suicide bombers.
Abu-Assad's film focuses on a few days in the life of two would-be suicide bombers in Nablus, from their dead-end jobs as auto mechanics, to smoking a hookah overlooking the valley, to what unfolds after they strap on the bombs and cross into Israel. These are not suicide bombers as fundamentalist zealots but as guys who are misguided yet relatable -- at least to Western viewers.
While TV has already begun to focus on the phenomenon, with miniseries on sleeper cells and plotlines of detective shows, the film business so far has largely dealt with the phenomenon of terror metaphorically, elusively if at all. Of all the arts, Hollywood is generally the slowest to respond to current events, for both institutional and cultural reasons. The middlemen between filmmakers and the screen are usually the studios, whose bureaucracies don't move quickly and who in recent decades have been increasingly loath to step into even mildly contentious waters lest congressional leaders put a cramp on their expansion plans or Chinese officials ban Mickey Mouse figures.
Neither "Syriana" nor "Paradise Now" is a politically timid film.
"There's trouble coming our way," says George Clooney, who stars in "Syriana" and executive-produced it with his partner Steven Soderbergh. "We did 'Three Kings,' but it was five years after the first Gulf War, which wasn't nearly as controversial as the second. I can't think of a film that talks about what makes somebody a bad guy -- it always has had some sort of historical cushion.