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Body of Lies ***½

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Crowe and DiCaprio spar gracefully in a potent repudiation of America's role in the Middle East.

(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani, Oscar Isaac. Rated R.

We’ve all known someone like Ed Hoffman. He fancies himself five steps ahead of the game, even when he doesn’t know the rules. He is cocksure and unwavering in his convictions. And more often than not, he’s spectacularly wrong.

Hoffman, a Big Brother type who oversees intelligence-finding missions in the Middle East from his cozy home in the Washington suburbs, is determined to impose his will on a region he neither knows nor understands, and it is his brand of ignorance and arrogance that continues to undermine America’s war on terror. That at least seems to be the damning conclusion of Ridley Scott’s captivating new thriller, Body of Lies.

Hoffman, whom Russell Crowe plays as a slick, fast-talking powerbroker with a comically insatiable appetite and a hefty gut to match, is the ultimate armchair quarterback, recklessly guiding his underlings into harm’s way and shrugging off the body count with an air of indifference. This is war, he reasons. Collateral damage is to be expected.

His star field operative, Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), doesn’t share that cynicism. In a world populated by mercenaries, jihadists and men of murky allegiances, he conducts himself with the kind of honor and understanding that Hoffman deems frivolous. He speaks Arabic. He trusts in his foreign-born allies and affords them the same respect as his countrymen. And he doesn’t send innocent men to their deaths, if he can help it.

Ferris is hardly an innocent – as Hoffman observes, nobody is – but he is enough of an idealist that he tries to distance himself from his boss’s boorish ineptitude and, by extension, America’s miscalculations abroad. In his dealings with Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), the shrewd, impeccably suave Jordanian intelligence chief who pledges his support in the hunt for a terrorist ringleader, Ferris is as forthright as his C.I.A. handlers will allow, and distinctly uncomfortable when called on to lie. Deception kills, and weighs on his conscience more than he would care to admit.

DiCaprio has played conflicted undercover operatives before, most memorably in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. (William Monahan, who wrote The Departed, adapted Body of Lies from the novel by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.) In that film and this one, he is at his fiery best playing a desperate man running on fumes and exposed nerves.

Body of Lies is a tense, deftly paced meditation on America’s role in the Middle East, and if it’s not quite a war movie, it offers somber insights into the Bush administration’s campaign against terror that recent thrillers like The Kingdom and Vantage Point have not. Behind all the shattering acts of violence that Scott stages so skillfully, the message is clear. We’re not winning this war, and men like Ed Hoffman may be the reason why.

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