"Body of Lies" is a film in disguise. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, except in this case the disguise is better than what it's covering up.
The skill of top-flight director Ridley Scott and his veteran production team, not to mention the ability of stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, ensure that this story of spies and terrorism in the Middle East is always crisp and watchable. But as the film's episodic story gradually reveals itself, it ends up too unconvincing and conventional to consistently hold our attention.
That is a shame, because Scott and company, including cinematographer Alexander Witt, production designer Arthur Max and two-time Oscar-winning editor Pietro Scalia, have done several things well in telling this story of how a CIA agent on the ground (DiCaprio) and his handler in Washington (Crowe) spar over espionage's inevitable life and death crises.
For starters, and this is no surprise, Scott is one of the best at creating crackling action and physical verisimilitude. Explosions and bursts of armed activity occur at regular intervals, and "Body of Lies" is especially good at re-creating the look and feel of the kind of omnipresent satellite observation technology that can follow its characters almost anywhere.
Taking off from a script by William Monahan ("The Departed") that's in turn based on the novel by David Ignatius, "Body of Lies" does well, especially in its first hour, in creating a thoroughly nefarious mood.
For this is a film that could just as well have been called "Everybody Lies." In its disturbing and disorienting world of ruthless amorality, where reality shifts like quicksand under your feet, trust is both essential for survival and fundamentally impossible.
Though it disguises the problem for a while, all this satisfying atmosphere and ambience ultimately cannot overcome fundamental flaws in the film's story.
For "Body of Lies" plays less like a feature film than like a television series with four distinct episodes, all loosely linked by setting and character but otherwise fairly distinct. Rather than increasing our interest, these episodes get less and less plausible and involving as the film goes on.
The two characters who appear in all episodes as they chase an elusive terrorist leader named Al-Saleem are the Americans who are the twin poles of the film's moral universe. The most appealing by far is DiCaprio's Roger Ferris, the CIA's ace on the ground in the Middle East. He speaks Arabic, he understands the culture and, just because he's willing to kill when necessary -- and he does -- that doesn't mean he isn't a caring, sensitive individual who values human life.
Which is more than you can say for Crowe's devious Ed Hoffman, a creature of flabby immorality who sleepwalks through his suburban Washington life of wife and kids while acting like the master of the Middle Eastern universe.
Smug, relentless, arrogant, untrustworthy and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is, Hoffman is another intriguing portrait by Crowe, the rare major star who has a character actor's gift for submerging himself completely in eccentric protagonists. Crowe gained 50 pounds to play Hoffman, who speaks as if he's the evil twin of "The Insider's" Jeffrey Wigand, someone who's so sure he's saving the world he's oblivious to the real damage he's doing to his country and his cause.
The first episode this pair are involved with has Ferris working in Samara in Iraq and dealing with a recruited suicide bomber who wants to turn state's evidence, so to speak, in return for amnesty and a life in the United States.
As a consequence of that situation, the next episode has Ferris assigned to Jordan, where he spends quality time with one of the film's best characters, Hani Salaam, head of Jordanian intelligence. Beautifully played by British actor Mark Strong, Hani is elegant, unflappable, impossible to read and, in an eerie echo of "Oliver Twist's" Fagin, given to calling Ferris "my dear."
If Hani and his world are the high points of "Body of Lies," what happens next occupies the other end of the spectrum. First comes the segment when Ferris becomes implausibly infatuated with a sweet nurse named Aisha (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani), which then links to an even more fantastical plot to capture the elusive Al-Saleem.
Though partially set in Iraq, "Body of Lies" uses the war as little more than window dressing, as a convenient setting for a story that could be told anywhere and any time violence and deception are the name of the game. Although dealing with the Iraq situation more directly would have been commercially riskier, it might have given this film a focus it could use.
"Body of Lies." MPAA rating: R for strong violence, including some torture, and language throughout. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes. In general release.