Leonardo DiCaprio brings straight-razor reflexes and rooted emotion to the role of a deceptively rugged CIA man in Ridley Scott's Body of Lies. He helps turn what could have been a dry-as-sand Middle Eastern thriller into a compelling suspense film that questions the ethics of espionage and counterterrorism without turning sanctimonious or screedlike. Working from a biting, inventive script by William Monahan (The Departed), based on Washington Post columnist David Ignatius' solid 2007 novel, DiCaprio depicts Roger Ferris as a man who adapts F. Scott Fitzgerald's notion of intelligence to an age of multitasking and to arenas of multiple risk.
Fitzgerald defined intelligence as maintaining the ability to keep functioning while holding two opposing ideas at the same time. DiCaprio's Ferris keeps operating in life-or-death situations while holding three or four contradictory thoughts simultaneously. When the main plot kicks in, and he establishes himself in Amman, Jordan, to mastermind the capture of a new world-class terrorist named Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul), Ferris displays even more dimensions than he did as a rough-and-tough-yet-sensitive field agent.
In Iraq, Ferris ruthlessly tracked down insurgents but also tried to protect native partners and informers - the latter no priority for Ferris' boss back at Langley, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who interferes with Ferris' operations via cell phones and satellites. In Jordan, Ferris tries to distance himself from Hoffman, a sometimes-amusing, often-enraging man who confuses pragmatism with cynicism. Ferris, who speaks fluent Arabic, also attempts to trail-blaze new relations with Arab intelligence officers, treating a regal Jordanian honcho named Hani (Mark Strong) as an equal and in some ways a superior. Despite his nationality and his profession, Ferris chances a strictly personal relationship with a half-Iranian nurse named Aisha (the lovely Golshifteh Farahani), who volunteers at a clinic in a Palestinian refugee camp. And when he concocts a fake terrorist organization to rouse Al-Saleem's competitive juices and smoke him out, he hopes to save the life of the innocent architect he framed to look like the ringleader.
Ferris is an existential juggler throwing a fistful of knives up in midair. DiCaprio doesn't drop a single blade. B ody of Lies proves to be emotionally as well as intellectually gripping because most of the time we can read every calculation and impulse that race through DiCaprio's mind. Since John le Carre pioneered the smart dirty-spy novel in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, it's become a cliche that our antihero or wised-up champion will double as a put-on artist, purposefully confusing his antagonists and readers or moviegoers, too.
Following the novel's cues, Body of Lies gets beneath Ferris' skin and reveals his authentic ideals and feelings as well as his strategies. Here, it's the Jordanian espionage czar, Hani, who keeps you (and Ferris) guessing. Strong imbues him with a hard-earned omniscience that's impossible to separate from pride. And Crowe creates, in Hoffman, the agency officer who's too sleazy-smart to create trust. Using his earphone as his connection to danger while he pads around his suburban digs or chauffeurs his daughter like a proper country squire, he's developed an ironic attitude toward himself - and that's a dangerous man to have in the position of placing personnel at risk.
Packing the same sort of weight as he did in The Insider, Crowe is like an urbane --- make that sub-urbane - wit posing as baggy-pants comic. It's an original and in its own way audacious performance, and he and DiCaprio play well together; their edgy rapport reaches its pinnacle when DiCaprio kicks him to the ground in his chair. The script hands Crowe some of its wisest lines. He rightly tells Ferris that no one's innocent in the spy game, and that's certainly true of Hani, who knows torture is useless but does believe in corporal punishment. And it's Hoffman who informs intelligence officials that a new breed of terrorists has outsmarted them by going back to basics - for example, throwing away their cell phones and passing messages by hand.
No director has mastered the new technology better than Ridley Scott, and here he puts his virtuosity to good use, the way he did in Black Hawk Down. He develops a sub-theme in Body of Lies that's almost entirely visual: the way that today's all-encompassing surveillance techniques can give a self-satisfied game-player like Hoffman the illusion that he understands foreign terrain.
Scott's sympathies are with the boots on the ground. He's a master of choreographing shootouts and smash-and-grab missions, but, in his best work, it's the human details that are telling. The best moment comes when DiCaprio's Ferris picks bone fragments out of his skin and the doctor tells him they're not his. They belong to an Iraqi partner.
Body of Lies
(Warner Bros.) Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Golshifteh Farahani. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated R for strong violence, including some torture, and for language throughout. Time 128 minutes.