Call it "terror porn" (as one colleague has amusingly dubbed the entire wave of recent Hollywood espionage movies) if you must. Like Syriana, The Kingdom and Rendition, Body of Lies begins with a healthy dollop of post-9/11 relevance, as an Arab terrorist blows himself (and an entire block of Manchester, England) to smithereens just as the police move in to nab him. A bearded bin Laden surrogate — here a Syrian-born, American-educated guru named Al-Saleem (Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul) — soon steps forward to take credit and promises further attacks to "avenge the American wars on the Muslim world."
Meanwhile, our man in Samarra, CIA operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), sniffs for clues along Al-Saleem's bread-crumb trail. The terrorist and his followers have gone off the grid, we're told, conducting their meetings and transactions face to face rather than on the information superhighway — the better to avoid detection by the very technology that is the backbone of the American war machine. So Ferris devises a plan to lure Al-Saleem out of hiding that would seem preposterous were it not backed by the very military-industrial complex that has proved to rival Hollywood in matters of smoke-and-mirrors trickery. (Paging Jessica Lynch.) He invents a fictitious rival terror cell, equips it with fake bank accounts, plants allusive messages in all the right fundamentalist chat rooms, and dupes an innocent patsy — a Dubai architect (Ali Suliman) who meets all the requirements of "terror suspect" without actually being one — into an unwitting starring role in an act of mass destruction on American soil, produced and directed by the U.S. government.
Body of Lies might best be described as a cat-and-mouse pursuit in which the felines and rodents spend more time chasing their own tails than stalking each other. (Think of the characters as the contemporary equivalents of the eternally feuding Napoleonic soldiers from Scott's 1977 debut feature, The Duellists.) For every one step forward Ferris takes on the ground in Iraq — and Syria and Jordan — he ends up taking at least two steps back at the behest of his Langley superior, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who thinks nothing of compromising Ferris' sources if he deems it in the interest of "national security." It becomes something of a running joke in the film that while the wiry, Arabic-speaking Ferris is getting his ankles nipped at by rabid dogs in an Amman alleyway and his skin embedded with shrapnel in a close-quarters explosion, the paunchy, Arkansas-accented Hoffman keeps tabs on everything from a comfortable remove, managing the operation from his cell phone while packing his kids off to school and engaging in other bits of emasculating domesticity. Not for a minute, though, do we doubt which of these two is the more dangerous man.
Body of Lies comes carrying all sorts of familiar spy-movie baggage, from its cyclorama of exotic Middle East locations to the inevitable climax (by far the film's most conventional stretch) in which things suddenly turn personal for our ostensible hero and his grafted-on romantic interest (a comely Jordanian-Iranian nurse played by Golshifteh Farahani). But its generic attributes (and title) notwithstanding, Scott's film may be the sharpest of all the post-9/11 thrillers — and also the most purely entertaining — in the way it maps the vectors and currents of the modern intelligence-gathering game without losing us in its dense narrative thicket. Even more refreshingly, Scott and Monahan don't feel obliged to keep up a PC balance of Arabs good and bad, Americans ideologically pure and bankrupt. And in Body of Lies' macrocosmic view, even a villain like Al-Saleem seems an ultimately minor player at the mercy of distant power brokers with very powerful remote controls.
A long way from king of the world, DiCaprio here hides his adolescent face behind a scraggly, dark-brown beard and tries his best to sound grizzled, though his voice still quakes with the uncertainty of a high school kid asking for a hall pass. Yet somehow that's all of a piece with the character, who seems to be one of those well-bred American youths who got into public service thinking he could actually make a difference, only to learn the hard way that war is a business and business is good. It is, along with Blood Diamond, the most confident performance DiCaprio has given in one of his ostensibly grown-up roles.
But as good as DiCaprio is, Body of Lies is stolen early and often right out from under him by a British actor named Mark Strong, cast here as the debonair chief of the Jordanian General Intelligence Department. Tailored to the nines in Savile Row couture, calling everyone "my dear" in his mellifluous, dulcet tones, Strong's Hani Pasha supplies information when convenient, withholds when necessary, baits presumed allies into a trap when he smells a rat, and oversees the torture of the occasional prisoner, all without unsettling a hair on his elegantly coiffed head. "Never lie to me," he advises Ferris upon their first meeting, though it's quite clear that Hani doesn't risk trusting anyone. Which, in the world of Body of Lies, is the only sure way of keeping your head above water.