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Operatives And 'Lies' In Ridley Scott's New Thriller

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

In Ridley Scott's new thriller, "Body of Lies," Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe operate in the shadowy world of spies and deceit in the age of terrorism. DiCaprio plays a Mideast CIA agent on the ground, and Crowe plays his boss back at Langley. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: "Body of Lies" is a so-so thriller, but it's fascinating as the first American war-on-terror movie to weave its anti-U.S. politic so deeply into the narrative that the characters don't need to make big speeches. The politics are snuck in under the cliffhangers. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Roger Ferris, an idealistic Mideast CIA operative constantly undermined by his chummy Langley-based boss Ed, played by Russell Crowe with 20 or so extra pounds.

Ed doesn't intentionally screw up Ferris' mission. He's also committed to wiping al Qaeda off the map. It's just that he's arrogant. When Ferris forms an alliance with the head of Jordanian intelligence, Hani Salam, to do surveillance on a terrorist's safe house, Ed plays his own spy games on the side out of habit. The situation is so abstract for him. He can kiss his kids goodbye at a Virginia school while talking tactics to Roger, whom he always calls buddy on his headset.

(Soundbite of movie "Body of Lies")

Mr. LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Roger Ferris) Listen, you want me to run Amman? Let me run Amman, all right? I had made promises to Hani Salam. Do you understand that?

Mr. RUSSELL CROWE: (As Ed Hoffman) Uh-huh. What's your point?

Mr. DICAPRIO: (As Roger Ferris) We have to respect what he wants.

Mr. CROWE: (As Ed Hoffman) I do respect him. What kind of thing?

Mr. DICAPRIO: (As Roger Ferris) You were going to blow this entire Amman operation.

Mr. CROWE: (As Ed Hoffman) I'm just trying to back you up, buddy. It's a dangerous dangerous world out there, you know.

Mr. DICAPRIO: (As Roger Ferris) Well, don't back me up because I don't need it, all right?

Mr. CROWE: (As Ed Hoffman) All right. Whatever. You're ready to go?

Unidentified Child: Whatever.

EDELSTEIN: Whatever is right. To Ed, everyone is expendable - frightened informants, contract employees, agents. He's not evil. He's not good. He's meant to embody American callousness and American incompetence, too, because even though he understands intellectually that al Qaeda has shunned technology and is playing a ground game, he's not on the ground where it matters. "Body of Lies" turns on an emerging terrorist leader called Al-Saleem and Ferris' plot to smoke him out by creating a fictional terrorist, the idea being that Al-Saleem's ego will be threatened by a rival.

It's a good gimmick and well-orchestrated in the novel by "Washington Post" journalist, David Ignatius, who knows the territory. But the movie script by William Monahan is un-gamely. And director Ridley Scott lets nothing interfere with his liquidity-split pacing, including the need to slow down and hit some basic narrative beats. The moment Ferris hatches his scheme is missing. The moment he realizes how he's been used is murky. The payoff is muted. The movie is intense with a harrowing climax, but it's not witty or memorable. If you've seen Joel and Ethan Coen's "Burn After Reading," you might giggle at genre tropes the brothers burlesque, here played absolutely straight.

DiCaprio is fine, as usual, but the role has no color. The casting of Crowe is a bit of a stunt, one of the most physically intense actors alive as a man so removed from the consequences of his actions, from the real world, that he doesn't even seem to be connected to his body. Because he's a star, we watch him attentively. But Ed remains a caricature.

What keeps "Body of Lies" from being a non-event is a turn by the British actor Mark Strong as Jordanian spy master Hani. He looks a little like Andy Garcia. He's sleek, darkly handsome, immaculately dressed, his posture relaxed yet somehow coiled. His words to DiCaprio's Ferris are measured yet momentous.

(Soundbite of movie "Body of Lies")

Mr. LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Roger Ferris) Now, you've recently discovered a large Al-Saleem safe house and training cell here in Amman. I would need your help for surveillance, sir. Now, this is what we know so far.

Mr. MARK STRONG: (As Hani) This is unusual. Your Ed Hoffman would rather have less information than to share with you than me?

Mr. LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Roger Ferris) Well, this is not Ed Hoffman. This is not my predecessor. This is me, sir.

Mr. STRONG: (As Hani) I have one rule if we are to cooperate, my dear, never lie to me. Understand? Never lie to me.

EDELSTEIN: It's fitting the actor playing the Jordanian should walk away with the movie because the thrust of "Body of Lies" is that his character has far more understanding of how things work than the Americans do, a bitter assessment of U.S. chances in the war of terror. The movie is one of a new breed of thrillers that reflects a new national mood, a rejoinder to the myth of American omniscience. It says, we don't know nothing.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for "New York Magazine." ..COST: $00.00 Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Edelstein
David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.