In "Body of Lies," Leonardo DiCaprio sports an undergrowth of facial hair so mossy and unkempt I thought I'd stumbled into an early screening of Steven Soderbergh's "Che." The star is playing Roger Ferris, our CIA agent on the ground in the Middle East, and the scruff is supposed to help him blend in with the locals. It's also meant, I think, to give DiCaprio some visual gravitas - to make him look like a man among men. Perversely, it makes him seem barely postadolescent. Even more perversely, this helps the movie.
"Body of Lies" is based on a novel by journalist David Ignatius and directed by the estimable stylist Ridley Scott. The movie is an urgent current-events thriller that falls somewhere between "Syriana" and the "Bourne" movies. It's a genre film - the action is fierce and nonstop - with a brooding undercurrent of unease that aims for the complexities of John le Carre.
Complexity, in fact, is the subject: Those characters who can grasp the nuances of Middle East realpolitik are the film's heroes. Those who see it through the filter of ideology - any ideology - are the villains. Ferris is caught in the middle, an honorable but flawed hero owned by a bankrupt spook culture.
The audience? We're on our own, which is fine if you've followed the news and can keep up with the spinning datelines (Iraq, Amman, Dubai, the Netherlands, Langley), less so if it's all one big Arab muddle to you. The two women sitting next to me in the screening spent most of the running time loudly wondering where we were now; I wanted to hand them an atlas and tell them to shut up.
The hero's CIA minder is Ed Hoffman, Near East section head, played by Russell Crowe with the doughy comic certainty of the boss in "Dilbert." As Ferris heads to Jordan to dig out an Al Qaeda nest, one that hopefully leads to a nefarious Osama-style jihadist (Alon Aboutboul), he's never sure whether Hoffman is using him in a larger game.
The joke is that Hoffman's always playing a larger game - it's what gets him up in the morning. Crowe gives this D.C.-based suit a deliciously Machiavellian spin. We see him sending his kids off to school while chatting blithely with the frustrated Ferris via earpiece, and the disconnect - from his home life, from events in Amman, from common morality - is frighteningly funny.
Hoffman's opposite number is Hani Pasha (British actor Mark Strong), head of the Jordanian secret police and a smooth customer (he habitually calls Ferris "my dear") with a masterful command of political intricacies. Dedicated to capturing the terrorists, he's a foxy strategist who knows when to use force and when to use persuasion; all he asks is that Ferris be truthful with him. The drama in "Body of Lies" deals with how much truth the hero can admit to, or how much he even knows.
Scott keeps the film rocketing along, close to the trail here, dashing out to the desert wastes there, looping back to Europe for a terrifying marketplace explosion. Secondary characters zip in and out, trailed by bullets or betrayal. Hovering above the fray like a paranoid's daydream are spy planes that relay high-resolution images back to Langley and Hoffman; entire chunks of the film seem to have been brought to us by Google Earth. The irony is that Ferris's handlers see so much while comprehending so little.
The script adaptation is by William Monahan, and there's a whiff of "The Departed" in the profane crackle of the dialogue. (not to mention DiCaprio's undercover agonizing). "Body of Lies" gets a nice second-act lift when the hero concocts a fake terrorist cell to lure the Al Qaeda mullah out of hiding. Using all the available electronic resources (marshaled by a diffident British wonk played by Simon McBurney), Ferris provides a jihadist identity for an innocent and unsuspecting Jordanian architect (Ali Suliman). These scenes feel like "Mission: Impossible" played with real money, tense because they're so absurdly feasible.
Yet "Body of Lies" is at heart a pulp thriller, no more so than when the gifted Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani turns up as a fetching Amman nurse named Aisha who stitches Ferris's wounds and sets his heart aflutter. No slight to Farahani, but her scenes play like sops to DiCaprio's heartthrob following, a concession to the notion that every movie needs a love interest or we won't pay attention.
Well, no, not really. "Body of Lies" is about the evil that men do - often when they think they're doing good - and the romance between Ferris and Aisha feels like a tacked-on Hollywood diversion. Anyway, the movie's real romance is between Ferris and the silky, brutal Hani. Knowing all and seeing all, the Jordanian seduces the American, but would he seduce us so easily if the role had been cast with an Arab actor? Possibly. Nevertheless, you wonder if Roger Ferris isn't the only person here with stars in his eyes.