by MARYANN JOHANSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & ow do you win a war you can't win? The long answer is part of what Body of Lies explores: the machinations and motivations of the warriors, how they throw away their seeming advantages that are actually disadvantages, how they attempt to get into the heads of their enemies, the hell they put themselves through in the process. But the short answer is probably: You don't win it. You just go on losing it for a long, long time.

That short answer hangs in the air over Body of Lies, unspoken but palpable, underlining the long-term futility of absolutely everything the movie depicts. Here, in a story adapted from the novel of the same name by Washington Post journalist David Ignatius, that dilemma plays out between senior CIA strategist Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), stationed at CIA HQ in Virginia, and his man on the ground in the Middle East, Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hoffman, perpetually attached to his phone headset, coordinates Ferris nonstop, whether the older man is dropping his kids off at school or actually watching Ferris via high-resolution satellite cameras in the middle of the Iraqi desert. Together, they're trying to hunt down a new player on the scene, an Osama bin Laden wannabe called Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), who's orchestrating a series of terrorist bombings of civilians across Europe, with the promise of much more blood to be shed.

Hoffman and Ferris hold each other in disdain, each fully aware that he is being lied to and deceived and misled by the other, each equally aware that this is all part of their slightly different jobs. Hoffman is a big-picture guy and Ferris is his pawn, but neither of them could do his work without the dedicated input of the other. And the film is, on the surface, a cat-and-mouse game not so much between the CIA and Al-Saleem -- though it's that, too -- but between Ferris and Hoffman. The very great pleasures of the film come in seeing Crowe and DiCaprio square off. (They're onscreen together in more than a few scenes -- they're not always just arguing over the phone.) In a role that a decade ago Crowe himself would have taken on with gusto, DiCaprio feels brawny and muscular and dynamic in the same way that Crowe always has. Crowe, on the other hand, is perfectly at home in the body of a calculating game player like Hoffman, even going so far as to gain 50 pounds to play a man who looks slow and doughy but who has a sleek, sharp mind like icy steel.

It's all good, from the perspective of entertainment: The script, by William Monahan (The Departed), is clever and subtle; it demands that you pay attention and then rewards you for doing so. Ridley Scott's direction is, as always, so masterful that even a trying-to-be-detached-and-critical observer like me got so caught up Body of Lies that I forgot that I wasn't there simply to get lost.

But beyond the entertainment, there are some very scary think-bombs about how terrorism is a kind of theater -- a kind of spectacle on the world stage created by performance groups on opposing sides. The "body of lies" doesn't simply involve Hoffman lying to Ferris or Ferris lying to his contacts on the ground. Instead, perhaps, all of us are being lied to by everyone. That's the truly terrifying thought that lingers long after Body of Lies has arrived at its conclusion.


Rated R

Directed by Ridley Scott

Starring Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio

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