Director: Truth Is Stranger Than 'Syriana's' Fiction

As the lights went up on a Tuesday screening in Georgetown of "Syriana" -- a murky geopolitical thriller about renegade spies, suicide bombers, sinister oil barons and a very mean man peeling off George Clooney's fingernails with pliers -- the wonky-insider audience was buzzing with questions.

Like: Okay, how much of that was real?

Fortunately, director Stephen Gaghan was on hand. The Oscar-winning screenwriter (in 2000, for the drug-trade saga "Traffic") went deep, man, real deep in researching the screenplay -- traveling to Washington, Geneva, Beirut and Damascus, and rubbing shoulders with sheiks, lobbyists, international investors and Hezbollah leaders, he said, many of them introduced to him by Robert Baer, the former CIA agent whose memoir "See No Evil" inspired the film.

He said the stuff he learned, especially in Washington, blew his mind -- so much so that he felt he had to fictionalize most of it or no one would believe it.

"You have to dial it back, or it's too intense for the heartland," he told a room that included former CIA director James Woolsey, Sheila Casey (wife of the top U.S. officer in Iraq, Gen. George Casey) and the usual media-political types.

Gaghan can't get enough of weird Washington. "I want to do 'Duke-Stir: The Opera,' " he said, referring to the name of the boat owned by disgraced former congressman Duke Cunningham. "And it's spelled S-T-I-R, that's the key . . . Driving up to work in a Rolls-Royce on a congressman's salary and no one says a word!"

A baby auteur ("Syriana" is only his second directing job), he winced when the closing credits were cut short for his Q&A. "I picked the font myself," he said. "Highway Gothic. It's considered the new Helvetica in some circles."

For Jeb Bush, a Big Fat Insult From Fidel Castro

It's no Bay of Pigs incident, but Fidel Castro has called Jeb Bush "the fat little brother in Florida.''

The Cuban leader made the crack during a speech Nov. 17 to students at the University of Havana, according to a transcript obtained by the Miami Herald, as he questioned whether the Florida governor helped a suspected terrorist enter the United States. He then added, "Forgive me for using the term 'fat little brother.' It is not a criticism, rather a suggestion that he do some exercises and go on a diet, don't you think? I'm doing this for the gentleman's health.''

Okay, maybe the president's brother has packed a few pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. In October, he complained to Tallahassee students that he's not walking enough, and blamed those pesky security motorcades. Bush weighs 225 pounds, according to a spokeswoman. (Weight Watchers says the ideal weight for a man his size is 181 to 207 pounds.)

Initially, Bush's office wouldn't "dignify this with a response,'' but the governor later sarcastically told reporters, "I'm flattered and honored'' to be criticized by Castro. "He can call me whatever he wants.'' So there!


* Re-rapped: Eminem says he's back with ex-wife Kim Mathers. "We have reconciled and are probably going to remarry," he told a Detroit radio station Tuesday.

The couple wed in 1999 and divorced two years later as an ugly custody battle over daughter Hailie played out in his raps: "But for now we'll just say Mama was real, real bad / She was bein' mean to Dad and made him real, real mad," and "Da-da made a nice bed for Mommy at the bottom of the lake." The reconciliation of a child's parents is obviously such happy news that only a cynic would note that the announcement came as Em flacked his new greatest-hits album, "Curtain Call," released that very morning.

* Broken up: Nicole Richie -- Lionel's daughter and Paris Hilton's estranged friend and reality-TV co-star -- has parted ways with fiance DJ AM after a nine-month engagement, her rep confirmed to the Associated Press last night. Hopefully we can find her a nice Greek shipping heir instead!

* Sitcom Starlet Splits: They said it wouldn't last a year, but "One Day at a Time" ingenue Valerie Bertinelli and guitar god Eddie Van Halen stuck it out for almost a quarter-century until filing for divorce Tuesday. They have one son . . . Christina Applegate and her husband, actor Johnathon Schaech, are calling it quits after four years.