Body of Lies

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Leonardo DiCaprio’s perpetually youthful face means he’s forever doomed to wear beards and goatees in movies where he’s supposed to be taken seriously as an adult. It never looks right, either, even when it’s his own hair that actually grew out of his own face. And it’s a shame, because his acting, which becomes more nuanced and effective with each role, ought to be enough. Let the man play a CIA agent without a goofy beard! We’ll believe him, I promise!

In fairness, the agent he plays in “Body of Lies,” named Roger Ferris, is working in the Middle East, and perhaps the character would grow a beard, no matter how badly, just to fit in better. I guess I can accept that. On the other hand, if wearing a beard were a requirement for a CIA spook working in Iraq, wouldn’t you only assign agents who could grow a good one? You have to think these things through, people.

But anyway. The movie. Oh, I don’t have much to say about the movie. It’s an unfocused, almost pointless spy thriller directed by Ridley Scott and co-starring his BFF Russell Crowe as Ferris’ CIA boss. I thought the film’s message might be summarized by this early statement by Crowe’s character: “We take our foot off the throat of the enemy for one second and our world changes.” By the time the film was over, I didn’t think that was the message anymore, but I’m not sure anything had replaced it. It’s just a movie about some guys hunting terrorists, and occasionally finding them, and occasionally getting blown up. The end.

Ferris is a good spy, albeit more compassionate than the Agency would like him to be. When he promises an Iraqi informant amnesty in the U.S. in exchange for data, he genuinely wants to deliver on it. Back at headquarters, Ed Hoffman (Crowe), couldn’t care less about such things. Adopting a Southern accent (Southern U.S., not Southern Hemisphere), Crowe exhibits a good ol’ boy casualness that belies Hoffman’s unyielding, hard-nosed attitude. You can imagine how infuriating it would be to deal with someone who’s so cheerful yet so unbending.

In pursuit of a terrorist mastermind named Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul) — think Osama bin Laden, only fictional — Ferris goes to Amman, Jordan, where the Jordanian equivalent of the CIA is willing to help American operatives bring down terrorists. The head of intelligence, Hani (Mark Strong), is suave and well-dressed, a sparkling character who trades in favors and handshakes, not treaties and contracts. He pledges to support Ferris as long as Ferris is open with him about the details of the operation — which is difficult when Hoffman isn’t being open with Ferris.

The screenplay, adapted by William Monahan (“The Departed”) from David Ignatius’ novel, is cluttered and aimless. It’s not until the film is half-over that Ferris comes up with his plan for drawing Al-Saleem out of hiding, and while that kicks things into high gear, you have to wonder why we didn’t get to it sooner. Was the first hour just for giggles? And it’s always disappointing when a government agent meets a local woman in a movie like this, even when she’s played, as she is here by Golshifteh Farahani, with such natural charm. You know she’s only in the story for one of two reasons: either to betray the hero, or to be kidnapped and used as leverage against him.

I can take or leave Crowe (whose screen time is minimal anyway), but DiCaprio’s performance is winning. Ferris struggles with his compassion for the locals, with the way they’re caught up in the CIA’s web of terrorist-hunting, and with his own tacit endorsement of Hani’s “interrogation” tactics. DiCaprio plays all of this convincingly, coming across as a noble-minded patriot who’s still human, too. He’s easily the film’s strongest asset, and the reason it might be worth watching.

C+ (2 hrs., 8 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some graphic violence and depictions of torture.)

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