Just saw this at some franchise-o-plex on the Promenade in Santa Monica.
The movie is very interesting, but very dense and quite confusing (at least, it was for me). For the first half of the movie, it seems like we're introduced to one or two characters in every scene. Most of them speak in cryptic sentence fragments, and if you're not playing careful attention you could easily lose track of one of the movie's four main plot threads.
(I am really bad at remembering character names, especially when a lot of them are Arabic. Sorry)
First of all, we meet George Clooney as a CIA operative selling booby-trapped rocket launchers to Syrian terrorists (? - I guess they were terrorists). But we see, as he does, that one of the weapons falls into the wrong hands...
Then there's the merger of oil giant "Connex" and a smaller company called... er... I can't remember. Let's call them Company B. Connex wants new fields, but is outbid by China in Saudi Arabia. The merger is a marriage of convenience - Company B has secured the rights to valuable oil fields in Kazakhstan, apparently under dubious circumstances. The merger is blocked by the federal government, pending investigation. To provide "the illusion of due diligence", Connex hires Bennet Holiday, a tenacious lawyer tasked to find the dirt before the feds do.
Like I said, it's dense.
Thirdly, there's Matt Damon as some kind of energy industry analyst dude (I couldn't really tell - but I never understand money market stuff in real life, so that's no surprise). It took me a while to realize the purpose of Damon's character - but after pondering on it, I believe he's meant to represent America in general. Profiting, somewhat obscenely, from the resources of other countries. But innocent of just how deep the intervention goes, and how serious the - often unintended - consequences are. The contrast between Damon and Clooney, and the way in which their characters meet, reinforce this interpretation. Damon, especially when he calls his wife to report on the humidity, is also an expository mouthpiece who (thankfully) explains a lot of things for us.
Lastly, we get a thumbnail sketch of poor immigrant oil workers getting seduced by Islam, and eventually martyrdom. The rocket launcher from Clooney's thread makes a re-appearance here, one of surprisingly few specific connections between these threads.
These are incomplete synopses, typed from memory. There is a lot more detail in each of them. Like I said, it's dense. It's also very interesting, and I liked seeing some fairly radical view points ("when a country with 5% of the world's population does 50% of it's military spending, it's powers of persuasion have clearly failed", and Damon's frank rant about "what the lawyers are thinking") being espoused by popular actors in a mainstream movie theater.
The best part about the movie is the performances and characters. I particularly liked Alexander Siddig (I looked it up) as the Oxford-educated Prince, and the charismatic teacher at the... training camp? Religious school? I'm not sure what it was but it had bee-hives. Anyway, the teacher and the two main students are excellent. Amanda Peet is also great - her scene with Damon when she leaves to return to the US was a total surprise to me. She can act!
Overall, Syriana is good. The details are interesting, the characters are good to great, the dialog is efficient and plausible, and the music and direction are strong. It's hard work, and doesn't really qualify as "entertainment". But it's definitely worth checking out, especially if you're interested in a fictionalized but - one suspects - rather accurate peek into the world of oil, US foreign policy, and the Muslim perspective on same.