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Body of Lies
by David Ignatius
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Body of Lies"

Villainy, and its source, changes with the times. The events of 9/11 changed who we perceive as our primary enemies--it changed the focus of our clandestine services and the laws that sanction them and it changed the avatars of evil being drafted into the fictional context. The use of hooded, secretive men spouting hatred in the name of religion, or a madly contrived quest for domination and martydom is the new paradigm of antagonists for authors to set their heroes against. The list of mystery writers who have replaced their homegrown criminals, masterminds and mass murderers with the kafiyah-wearing plotters from the Middle East are too numerous to name. But few have done it better than David Ignatius.

This is how I began my review of the book on which this powerful spy thriller is based. In that review of my favorite mystery novel of 2007, my prediction of its residence on best sellers lists and its likely adaptation to a movie have been realized.

CIA field agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is, if anything, an innovator. Yes, his command of Arabic ideally suits his posting to the terrorist hotbeds of the Middle East, but his ability to "read" a situation and adapt to the circumstances is what keeps him alive as he brushes close to hostility and the potential of instant death on a daily basis. But that's the job description for a spy and a gatherer of intel in an unsymmetrical war with jihadists.

As though the world were his personal fish bowl, the relatively unrestrained Ed Hoffman (fattened Russell Crowe), chief of the CIA's Near East operations, watches high def, drone images of his favorite agent as he cooly runs the operation with all the detail the latest state-of-the-art electronics affords him. The new world of spying, slightly futurized.

But, while Ferris is pretty much on Hoffman's tether, what burns him up is Hoffman's side maneuvers that go awry and screw up his tactical actions. After one such play for inside information ends in a jihadist turncoat's death, Hoffman moves Ferris to Amman, Jordan, to take over the CIA office and to liase with Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), Jordan's security chief who both likes his new American colleague and demands 100% reciprocity and truthfulness. "Never lie to me," he says with threatening intensity.

The common objective is one of the more productive (bombwise) terrorist leaders Ali Suliman (Omar Sadiki) whom no agency has been able to touch. All too aware of counter-espionage electronics and techniques, Sadiki's web communicates only by word of mouth or encoded notes on paper. But a man on the ground with Ferris' tricky ways could manage a breakthrough.

With the intel he's picked up about a terrorist safe house in Amman, a CIA/Jordan co-operation begins with all the clandestine secrecy of spycraft in the hopes that quiet surveillance will lead them to the top, to Suliman--only to be brought to a halt by the action of an overeager subordinate. Back to square one... until Ferris comes up with a master plan, which becomes the spying centerpiece of the yarn. Since they can't get to Suliman, he presents a plan to lure the evil honcho to them--a fabrication idea that warms the cockles of Hoffman's spymaster heart.

A chase on foot after a key member of the islamist network results in Ferris getting his feet chewed by rabid dogs. This brings him to the closest hospital where he's treated by Aisha (Golshifteh Farahana), a sweet young nurse, with the first of five injections. By the fourth, a full blown romance is under way, and an entirely new vulnerability to the enemy is in the terrorist wind.

This is one of several changes from the propulsive, non-stereotyped Ignatius novel, in which Ferris' marriage failure with a Department of Justice lawyer is fully described (only alluded to here) and the new romance is with a golden haired activist working with Palestinian refugees.

Directed by Ridley Scott ("American Gangster," "Gladiator"), the screenplay adaptation is the work of William Monahan ("The Departed," "Kingdom of Heaven"). Production credits are highly pro, marked by the rough textures of dangerous streets and alleyways to the burning sands of the deserts, ably captured by cinematographer Alexander Witt who Scott moved up from second unit on "American Gangster."

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In terms of meritorious performances DiCaprio is fine here, mostly extending his strong spy/soldier-of-fortune portfolio after "Blood Diamond" and his intense cop in "The Departed." If awards were given for discomfort in physical simulation of torture and other insults upon the body, he's a shoo-in for recognition but, excellent as he is, this isn't likely to be his year.

Crowe is another matter. What he does here as a slightly gone-to-seed executive-level manipulator who makes decisions delivered by phone from Langley, VA that affect the life and safety of his agents while feeding ice-cream to his feisty litle daughter in a play yard is a sight to behold--especially as there's so much of him. With the 50 pound addition of lazy bulk as requested by director Scott for the verisimilitude of the part, he lumbers around like a retired Washington pol with a slight edge of latter day Brando. We've got to find another "Master and Commander" for his thespian genius.

Yet, that may be unlikely. Despite the depth of knowledge about CIA spycraft and moment-to-moment tension brought to this espionage thriller by its author, and much to my disappointment, the movie may come off as just the latest alternative of the genre. What distinguishes the book with gripping realism may not be so apparent in the fully visualized cinematic context. Still, for spy calculus, suspense and action, I assign you to see it.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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