Body of Lies
Director : Ridley Scott
Screenplay : William Monahan (based on the novel by David Ignatius)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Leonardo DiCaprio (Roger Ferris), Russell Crowe (Ed Hoffman), Mark Strong (Hani), Golshifteh Farahani (Aisha), Oscar Isaac (Bassam), Ali Suliman (Omar Sadiki), Alon Abutbul (Al-Saleem), Vince Colosimo (Skip), Simon McBurney (Garland), Mehdi Nebbou (Nizar), Michael Gaston (Holiday), Kais Nashif (Mustafa Karami)
As we saw last year with The Kingdom, making a conventional action thriller set against the backdrop of the “War on Terror” is a dicey proposition. While we like to sink into the spectacle and get caught up in the intrigue, there is always that nagging sense of discomfort that the film is either being exploitative or not exploitative enough; there is very little room for a workable middle. This wasn’t so much of a problem a few decades ago when the Cold War provided a ready-made background for any number of action vehicles and espionage thrillers, but we could stomach that more easily because the Cold War was a vast abstraction without the direct-hit memories of 9/11 or the current-events miasma in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But, that doesn’t seem to be enough to stop the studios who, all evidence to the contrary, are determined to make the current world situation work for them. Thus, we get Body of Lies, a techno-heavy espionage thriller that hops back and forth between on-the-ground action in various Middle Eastern hotspots and the ever-present eye-in-the-sky surveillance of the CIA back home. On the ground we have Leonardo DiCaprio as Roger Ferris, an ambitious and determined CIA operative who is burying himself deep into the world of radical Islamic terrorists. With his scraggly beard and ability to speak fluent Arabic, Ferris can blend in well enough despite looking like Leonardo DiCaprio. Back home Ferris’s every move is being monitored by Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), a CIA honcho who is constantly wired into the action even while eating cereal on his expansive back porch or attending his daughter’s soccer game. Paunchy and brilliant and lacking anything resembling ethics, Hoffman is the film’s resident expert and power broker, manipulating events from his room of wall-sized monitors like he’s playing the ultimate video game.
Which, if the film were more thematically ambitious, might be the root of the story. However, screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed), working from the 2007 novel by journalist David Ignatius, is clearly more interested in the cat-and-mouse intrigue of the catching terrorists on their own turf. Doing so requires Ferris to work with Hani (Mark Strong), the head of intelligence in Jordan who is deeply distrustful of Americans, but realizes his country would benefit from an intelligence alliance with them. Ferris also sees the benefit, but he is regularly hamstrung by Hoffman who has the ugly American attitude that the rest of the world exists at the disposal of the U.S. and any alliances created or promises made are little more than expendable necessities to achieve his own goals. Of course, such an attitude befits someone who is constantly working from afar, rather than on the ground, and the tension between DiCaprio and Crowe when they come face-to-face provides the film with some of its strongest emotional fireworks.
Too bad, then, that so much of Body of Lies lumbers along in a lazily predictable manner. This is never so evident as in the relationship between Ferris and Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), an Iranian nurse whom he pursues despite their vast cultural differences and the fact that his time would be better spent on his various operations (the fact that he has any time or energy to devote to romance given all that the plot is throwing at him is pure Hollywood convention). This scenario does allow for a rather amusing scene in which Ferris must go to dinner at Aisha’s sister’s home in order to be vetted by the older sibling, but as a whole this subplot is so derivative and distracting that you can’t help but see it as little more than a setup for a future plot development, which arrives right on time.
Director Ridley Scott, who also worked with Monahan on the historical epic Kingdom of Heaven (2005), is comfortably at home with the big setpieces, although we’ve seen them all before (the foot chases through the crowded bazaars, the helicopters cutting across the desert, the kidnapping sequence in which the hero appears to be destined for a starring role in an Internet snuff film). When Body of Lies is at its best, it focuses on the relationships among the various operatives, all of whom are pursuing the same goal, but from distinctly different angles that are destined for conflict. Ferris has the kind of nobility that comes from putting your life on the line while Hoffman, with his casual attitude toward the life and limbs of others, is clearly a symbol of American egotism run amok, but they’re both caught up in the same pursuit and ultimately both willing to stoop to the same levels. This leads to the film’s best section, which involves Ferris creating a fake terrorist in order to play on the ego of his actual target and draw him into the open, which both makes for crackling suspense and also suggests disquieting ethical questions given that the scheme involves framing a perfectly innocent architect who may very well lose his life for the larger cause. Had Body of Lies been more focused on these kinds of sticky dilemmas, it might have been more memorable than just another War on Terror thriller.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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