Political thrillers have gotten a shot in the arm from Islamic terrorism, which replaced Soviet Communism as our favorite geopolitical bogeyman. But it's surprising how quickly the effect has worn off. Body of Lies, which takes us all over Europe and the Middle East in search of a radical cleric who likes to make things go kaboom, is a bit of a bomb itself. Oh, it has its moments, but they're all movie moments - car crashes, explosions, torture scenes. When Roger Ferris, a CIA operative played by Leonardo DiCaprio, nearly winds up on the Internet with his head not attached to the rest of his body, it doesn't feel like the real deal. It feels like the reel deal, an act of desperation on the scriptwriter's part.
Ferris is the Middle Eastern equivalent of Our Man in Havana, an Arabic-speaking spy-soldier who takes orders from a Langley desk jockey named Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). Hoffman calls all the shots, Ferris makes all the moves, but everything's on a need-to-know basis, and nobody knows more than Hoffman. The movie's one big idea is that Western surveillance technology, however sophisticated, is no match for jihadi fervor. And maybe that explains why DiCaprio and Crowe spend most of their scenes together on the phone while Hoffman keeps an eye on Ferris, via satellite drone, on a JumboTron. That's when he isn't phoning it in from home, where he fulfills his duties as a family man while - as he tells his wife - "saving civilization, honey."
There's an important message about psychological detachment in there somewhere - that it's easier to drop a bomb than to slit a man's throat. But Body of Lies would much rather entertain than inform, and about halfway through it cooks up a Mission: Impossible-style plot in which Ferris creates a rival radical cleric out of thin air in order to coax the first one out of hiding. Innocent lives are at stake, which eats away at Ferris but is all part of the game for Hoffman. Crowe seems to enjoy playing this down-home George Smiley, and it rubs off on us. But DiCaprio, drawing on the well of inspiration he used for Blood Diamond, comes up a little dry this time. Wouldn't you know it, the world belongs to the armchair warriors after all.