Just in time for the holidays comes Syriana — a movie about arms dealers, oil companies, terrorists and compromised world leaders. How uplifting. Even star George Clooney is fat and bearded.

But don’t let all that scare you. Syriana is intelligent and thought-provoking, albeit a bit tough to follow.

At the premiere, a gorgeous, slimmed down Clooney gave me his take on the film (not to mention inspiration for shedding my inevitable extra few holiday pounds).

“Syriana is mostly about 50 years of flawed policies in the Mideast,” he said. “That’s over a bunch of different administrations. Hollywood isn’t very good at providing answers to these things, but we are pretty good at asking questions. So that’s what our job is, I think.”

Clooney is known for asking lots of questions, having been the son of a real-life anchorman and politically active since age 13, when he worked on his first campaign. He’s an outspoken liberal, and doesn’t shy away from the label, even when — or especially when — it’s viewed as a dirty word.

“I find myself often defending liberals,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve been at the forefront of some pretty interesting social issues.”

Clooney’s character in Syriana is based on the memoirs of Bob Baer, an ex-CIA operative.

Said Baer, “If people are sensitive, they’re gonna think the film is anti-oil, which isn’t true. It’s anti the system. The system’s broken. And we gotta fix it.”

Baer and Clooney became friends during film; Baer stayed at Clooney’s house in Italy for a time, though at first he said he failed to recognize the world-famous actor.

“He grabbed my bag out of the car, had a beard and was heavy. I had no idea who he was.”

Baer was especially close with the film’s writer and director, Stephen Gaghan (Traffic). Baer took Gaghan on a two-month trip around the globe to help him research the film — which at times was a bit more than Gaghan bargained for.

They traveled through much of the Middle East, meeting with everyone from arms dealers to the spiritual leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Gaghan told me that at one point while they were apart, he called the Baer and asked his whereabouts.

“He told me, ‘Room 36,’” said Gaghan. "That’s it — no country, no city, no hotel. Just ‘Room 36.’” Such is the life of an ex-CIA agent. Gaghan still looked a bit freaked out by it.

I asked costar Matt Damon if this film sparked political discussions among the cast when the cameras weren’t rolling.

“There’s this perception that everyone in Hollywood is liberal,” said Damon, “and that’s not necessarily true. You have a lot of conservatives as well. So there’s always this healthy debate going around movie sets. People get into it.”

Another Syriana star, William Hurt, said he always stages his debates in private — never on news networks or at political rallies.

“I don’t get up on a soapbox. I don’t like to mix my metaphors,” said Hurt. “I have very strong political opinions, but I think it dilutes the message. I don’t like to use my celebrity in that way.”

But Clooney does, and hopes that a film like Syriana will get people talking.

“We’re in a very political time,” he said. “And I think that’s good. It puts people’s attention on things that are important, something other than… oh, say, celebrity.”

Chesney’s Chesnut

I’ve written in this column before about how I’ve become a pretty passionate convert to country music. Yes, I’m late to the party, but as I’ve also said before, I’m a native New Yorker. It’s tough to break our myopic ways.

Right now, I’m all about Kenny Chesney, and not due to any residual intrigue over his bizarrely truncated marriage to Renee Zellwegger.

His song Summertime, on his just-released album The Road and the Radio, provides just about the most toe-tappin’, feel good fun I’ve ever had listening to a piece of music. And while I enjoy the holidays, it can’t help but make me wish it actually were summertime. Then again, if the song and the season coincided, I’d be so over the top with glee I may not recover. Good thing I’ve got a six months to ease into it.

The Play’s the Thing

For those of you who like the theater — whether it’s a trip to Broadway or catching a national tour at a stage near you — here are some select quotes from those hitting the boards.

Martin Short, on his upcoming spring Broadway show (to be previewed this winter in Chicago): “It’s a satire of all one-man shows, with a cast. It’s either going to be called, ‘Martin Short on Broadway,’ or ‘Stroke Me, Lady Fame.’” Music and lyrics are by Hairspray's Tony-winning team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

Does Kathleen Turner miss the stage since closing Broadway’s “Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?” “Not yet,” she said. “That was a pretty heavy duty run. We’re gonna take it to London in January, so I’ll be back in the theatre soon enough.”

And finally, Nathan Lane, now enjoying the first few weeks of a sold-out run of Broadway’s “The Odd Couple” (costarring Matthew Broderick) reminisces about his many opening nights.

“They’re all horrible! You just want it to be over. People are all looking at each other, saying, ‘What’s SHE wearing? And who’s THAT? I NEVER liked him, and, oh — there seems to be a play going on.' It’s rare that it’s a fun evening in the theatre.”

Give him a Tony for telling it like it is.