It's a "stealth" story. Everyone knows it's there, true, but it usually creeps silently in the underbrush.
In its way, though, it's one of the biggest stories to hit your local movie megaplex in the past three years. To wit: Is there, at long last, an audience worth mentioning for serious films about American manipulations in the Middle East in the Iraq War era?
The answer, so far, has been a resounding "not really."
Today's question: "Well, OK, what if you got the director of 'Blackhawk Down' and the writer of 'The Departed' to collaborate on a spy variation of that called 'Body of Lies'?"
The movie, I tell you, is not bad -- not bad at all, really. It's complex but fast-moving and at times even gripping. But my guess is that the answer to the bedeviling and overriding question will still be "no." (If we had a draft, it would, no doubt, be a very different story.) That's true even though it stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, as a Middle East CIA operative and his superior back in Washington who gives him his orders over the phone while watching his kids' soccer games. (A nice nasty irony about the Bluetooth communications universe we now live in.)
DiCaprio's presence didn't exactly make "Blood Diamond" a titanic smash, and Crowe didn't ring the bell either for "A Good Year" or (sadly) Ron Howard's "Cinderella Man."
Rightly or wrongly, so many films of different qualities are now lumped together as "Iraq War films." A couple of them have been unequivocally good -- Paul Haggis' "In The Valley of Elah" and Stephen Gaghan's "Syriana."
With "Body of Lies," think "Rendition" with a side order of "Syriana." It skips all over the world like "Syriana," in this case from Manchester, to Munich to Amsterdam to Jordan (where most of it is set). It's about the CIA man "on the ground" (as they say) named Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) who is entrusted with bagging a particularly dangerous al-Qaida terrorist named Al Saleem.
Crowe plays Ferris' old cohort in Washington who gives him his orders over the phone while up to his ears in suburban Virginia life -- fixing orange juice for the kids, etc. Ferris' major ally in Amman, Jordan, is the head of Jordanian intelligence (Mark Strong), an elegant, humorless fellow who has one rule and one rule only for fellow citizens of spyworld: Never lie to him.
While Ferris concocts a complex plot to smoke Al Saleem out, you know that the plot pincers are going to squeeze him painfully, too, before it's over. And they do. (The movie is based on a novel by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.)
What keeps you avidly involved in the movie is wondering who Ferris' friend is going to be when push comes to shove (and shove turns into torture).
Because the script is by William Monahan, the man who wrote the flavorful script for "The Departed," "Body of Lies" is full of sharp, even prickly, dialogue, from geopolitical wisdom ("It is a fallacy that prolonged war will weaken an enemy; in reality, it will make him stronger") to matter-of-fact thuggery (aging boss to younger underling: "Ten years ago, I would have beaten the crap out of you").
The torture scenes are appropriately difficult to watch, and Leo gets a chance to enact something resembling his personal politics with proper passion. Crowe makes a nice schlubby, overweight bureaucrat.
The director is Sir Ridley Scott, who, at 70, has gone from being a cinematic visionary in youth ("The Duellists," "Blade Runner," "Alien") to a technically virtuosic filmmaker with too much to say -- and very little of it interesting. His last film, "American Gangster," was an epic exception to a lot of tedious movies since "Gladiator" (so too was the horror opera "Hannibal").
At this stage, think of Sir Ridley as a distinguished member of moviedom's House of Lords, whose solemn cinematic addresses to one and all are even money to clear the hall before they're half over.
BODY OF LIES
3 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes
RATING: R for violence, torture and language.
THE LOWDOWN: CIA manipulations all over the Middle East to try to nail a major al-Qaida terrorist.