It took me a while to arrive to the conclusion that I liked 'Syriana'.
The movie has a lot of things going for it to begin with. It is a hyperlink movie, a term apparently coined by an Alissa Quart in an article for 'Film Comment'. The movie flits between several sub-plots, all engaging, and all developing independently at their own pace.There is no obvious indication as to whether they will eventually tie up, although it is a reasonable guess to make.
This kind of movie structure keeps the viewer engaged. Nothing drags on for too long, and it keeps you focused all the time. The Clooney/Sodebergh/Gaghan combo has done this before in 'Traffic' (c/s/g), 'Out of Sight'(c/s), to some extent 'Three Kings'(c). If you you liked these films, then 'Syriana' will hit home.
But the best part about the movie is that it is matter of fact. Which is why I haven't brought up the plot(s) yet, and don't need to. The movie doesn't bother with introducing any of its eclectic set of characters, simply starts telling the story. It continues to do so, and eventually stops.
There is no judgement passed. All the characters do what they do out of their own convictions. And in doing so, seamlessly go back and forth a nebulous good/bad divide that really exists only in the viewers mind.
The CIA undercover agent, Clooney/Barnes is underrated, and disrespected, and eventually framed. But he will estrange family, and subject himself to life threatening torture, the gory scene prompting a remark from a friend,' why would one do a job like this?'. He will assassinate people and emirs, but be obsessed about a missing missile, because it might fall into the hands of a wrong assassin. Why indeed ?
Then there is an ace lawyer, Wright/Holiday, looking for corruption that might have led to an obscure oil company getting drilling rights to promising fields in Kazakhstan. His is a private investigation, to get to the smoking guns before the Justice Dept does. The more he gets into it, his uprightness softens as he starts looking for fall guys so that the need to show the appearance of justice being served is met, and an invite to the oil-man of the year dinner is wrangled.
Most characters are believable, especially the Texan oil-men, who do what they do "not for themselves but to prevent the Chinese economy from growing faster, and to pass benefits of scale to consumers". Clooney, I thought was a let-down despite his Oscar. His mannerisms:
the craned neck, the disappointed shrug are the same as in anything he has done before, right from 'ER' to 'One Fine Day' to 'OoS'. Also the last bit seems to be out of character. If he has to preventan assassination, then a CIA operator wouldn't have to fly physically over, a simple phone call would have done.
Matt Damon/Bryan is completely miscast as an analyst in a Swiss energy trading/consulting firm. Somebody needs to tell him that the shooting of 'Good Will Hunting' and 'Rounders' ended long time back, and he needs to kill the hyperactive-genius-forever-on-the-edge act. His ability to gloss over a personal loss and justify its conversion into a huge professional and financial gain is more believable.
The movie worked for me because it showed how the world works. It was not about the storyline, or because it seems like a liberal sarcasm of the hopelessly intertwined American energy/foreign policy. It presents people going about their lives based on personal ambitions, peer pressures or internal moral compasses and making compromises along the way. And as their lives intersect with others whose driving forces are different, it turns into a game. You can jump in or sit out depending on how high you are willing to raise the stakes. Definite must see.