Crowe, DiCaprio in cell-phone showdown

Posted: October 10, 2008

In Body of Lies, Ridley Scott's fascinating and flawed spy thriller about a soulless CIA technocrat (Russell Crowe) pulling the chains of field agents in the Middle East, Leonardo DiCaprio furnishes the soul.

For spymaster Ed Hoffman (Crowe) in Langley, informants are live bait to catch a slippery fish. For his man in Amman, Roger Ferris (DiCaprio), they are trusted allies in the war against al-Qaeda. One is a technocrat who trusts his surveillance tools, the other a humanist who trusts people.

Ferris, the one who earns the faith of Jordanian and Syrian sources that Hoffman discards once they have served their purpose, is horrified by his boss' attitude. But is his chief so cynical that he would use Ferris to bait an Osama bin Laden type named Al-Saleem?

Scott is a deft filmmaker who shows us (as he did in Black Hawk Down) how counterterrorism is conducted. Here, the players are on the streets and in the cafes of Amman, and the conductors are in Langley, Va. - CIA surveillance agents sitting before panoramic displays of real-time reconnaissance captured by Predator drones - commanding the movements. The terrorist war plays out in widescreen with quadraphonic sound.

Scott elicits muscular performances from his actors, especially DiCaprio. Though the casting of him versus Crowe holds out the promise of a generational and ideological showdown, there is none, because their most fraught ideological duels have their characters scream into cell phones 6,000 miles apart.

(Screenwriter William Monahan similarly exploited mobile-phone dramatics in his Oscar-winning script for The Departed, where the conceit was more effective because the characters were undercover.)

Considerably more effective than the scenes between Ferris and Hoffman are those between the rumpled Ferris, who hides behind his beard, and crisply tailored, clean-shaven Hani Salaam (British actor Mark Strong), chief of Jordanian intelligence, who owns every scene he is in. Using his blazing eyes as truth-seeking lamps, Hani is either Diogenes or a manipulator cleverer even than Hoffman.

Like Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, likewise based on a Monahan script, Body of Lies has an unusually nuanced view of the history and politics of the Middle East. Often lost in the film's erudition are the characters.

As is customary in a Scott movie, in every frame background events dynamically intrude on the action in the foreground. His film is full of compositional surprises that reward the attentive viewer. And, it must be said, it is also punctuated with unsparing, gut-wrenching, avert-the-eyes sequences of violence and torture.

In the end, Scott's film is a casualty of the conflict it explores. While its soul is with the tortured, culturally sensitive, and ultimately honorable Ferris, its heart is with the cagey technocrat. Body of Lies is most alive while relishing the surveillance and communications tools abused by Hoffman, tools that supply him military intelligence, but not the smarts or scruples to effectively use it.

Body of Lies *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Ridley Scott. With Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Strong. Distributed by Warner Bros.

Running time: 2 hours, 8 mins.

Parent's guide: R (extreme torture, terrorist violence)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at