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Body of Lies, Ridley Scott's latest, is the post-9/11 tech-savvy terror thriller we deserve

A new kind of war movie for a new kind of war, Body of Lies is about the War on Terror as it is being waged on the ground, in the air, but most of all in cyberspace. Directed with terrific verve by Ridley Scott (coming after the listless American Gangster) from a smart screenplay by William Monahan (writer of The Departed), the movie follows the flow of strategic information from BlackBerrys to satellites to the 21st-century war rooms where all the world — seen from above on a wide-screen Jumbotron — resembles one giant video game. Forget about nuclear launch codes and glass-encased detonators; here, Armageddon is just an e-mail — or a text message — away. Control-alt-delete: You're dead.

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 breadcrumb 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.

Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio fight a war on terror in Body of Lies.
François Duhamel
Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio fight a war on terror in Body of Lies.

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's 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.

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.

Body of Lies

 
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