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A new kind of war movie for a new kind of war, Body of Lies shows us the War on Terror as it is being waged on the ground, in the air and, most of all, in cyberspace. Written by William Monahan (The Departed) and directed with terrific verve by Ridley Scott (coming after the listless American Gangster), the movie follows the flow of strategic information from BlackBerrys to satellites to the 21st-century war rooms where all the world — seen from above on a wide-screen JumboTron — resembles one giant video game. Forget about nuclear launch codes and glass-encased detonators. Here, Armageddon is just an e-mail — or a text message — away. Control-alt-delete: You’re dead.

Call it “terror porn” if you must, as one colleague has amusingly dubbed the entire wave of recent Hollywood espionage movies. Like Syriana, The Kingdom and Rendition, Body of Lies begins with a healthy dollop of post-9/11 relevance, as an Arab terrorist blows himself (and an entire block of Manchester, England) to smithereens just as the police move in to nab him. A bearded bin Laden surrogate — here a Syrian-born, American-educated guru named Al-Saleem (Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul) — soon steps forward to take credit and promises further attacks to “avenge the American wars on the Muslim world.”

Meanwhile, our man in Samarra, CIA operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), sniffs for clues along Al-Saleem’s bread-crumb trail. The terrorist and his followers have gone off the grid, we’re told, conducting their meetings and transactions face to face rather than on the information superhighway — the better to avoid detection by the very technology that is the backbone of the American war machine. So to lure Al-Saleem out of hiding, Ferris devises a plan that would seem preposterous were it not backed by the very military-industrial complex that has proved to rival Hollywood in matters of smoke-and-mirrors trickery. (Paging Jessica Lynch.) He invents a fictitious rival terror cell, equips it with fake bank accounts, plants allusive messages in all the right fundamentalist chat rooms, and dupes an innocent patsy — a Dubai architect (Ali Suliman) who meets all the requirements of “terror suspect” without actually being one — into an unwitting starring role in an act of mass destruction on American soil, produced and directed by the U.S. government.

Manna from heaven for conspiracy theorists, Body of Lies might best be described as a cat-and-mouse pursuit in which the felines and rodents spend more time chasing their own tails than each other. (Think of the characters as the contemporary equivalents of the eternally feuding Napoleonic soldiers from Scott’s 1977 debut feature, The Duellists.) For every one step forward Ferris takes on the ground in Iraq — and Syria and Jordan — he ends up taking at least two back at the behest of his Langley superior, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who thinks nothing of compromising Ferris’ sources if he deems it in the interest of “national security.” While the wiry, Arabic-speaking Ferris gets his ankles nipped at by rabid dogs in an Amman alleyway and his skin embedded with shrapnel and bone fragments in a close-quarters explosion, the paunchy, Arkansas-accented Hoffman keeps tabs on everything from a comfortable remove, managing the operation from his cell phone while packing his kids off to school and engaging in other bits of emasculating domesticity. Not for a minute, though, do we doubt which of these two is the more dangerous man.

Body of Lies comes carrying all sorts of familiar spy-movie baggage, from its cyclorama of exotic Middle East locations to the old-fashioned climax in which things suddenly turn personal for our ostensible hero and his grafted-on romantic interest (a comely Jordanian-Iranian nurse played by Golshifteh Farahani). But its generic attributes (and title) notwithstanding,Scott’s film may be the sharpest and most perceptive of all the post-9/11 thrillers — and also the most purely entertaining — in the way it maps the vectors and currents of the modern intelligence-gathering game without losing us in its dense narrative thicket. Even more refreshingly, Scott and Monahan don’t feel obliged to maintain a P.C. balance of Arabs good and bad, Americans ideologically pure and bankrupt. In Body of Lies’ macrocosmic view, even a villain like Al-Saleem seems an ultimately minor player at the mercy of distant power brokers wielding very powerful remote controls.

A long way from king of the world, DiCaprio hides his adolescent face behind a scraggly dark-brown beard, and tries his best to sound grizzled, though his voice still periodically quakes with the uncertainty of a high school kid asking for a hall pass. Yet somehow that’s all of a piece with a character who seems to be one of those well-bred American youths who got into public service thinking he could actually make a difference, only to learn the hard way that war is a business and business is good. It is, along with Blood Diamond, the most confident he has yet seemed in one of his ostensibly grown-up roles.

But as good as DiCaprio is, Body of Lies is stolen early and often right out from under him by a British actor named Mark Strong, who plays the debonair chief of the Jordanian General Intelligence Department. Tailored to the nines in Savile Row couture, calling everyone “my dear” in his melifluous, dulcet tones, Strong’s Hani Pasha supplies information when convenient, withholds when necessary, baits presumed allies into a trap when he smells a rat, and oversees the torture of the occasional prisoner — all without unsettling a hair on his elegantly coifed head. “Never lie to me,” he advises Ferris upon their first meeting, though it’s quite clear that Hani doesn’t risk trusting anyone. Which, in the world of Body of Lies, is the only sure way of keeping your head above water — or maybe just keeping your head.

 
BODY OF LIES | Directed by RIDLEY SCOTT | Written by WILLIAM MONAHAN, based on the novel by DAVID IGNATIUS | Produced by DONALD DE LINE | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide