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Body of Lies (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 10 October 2008
“Body of Lies” is a tough, engrossing thriller about intrigue and death in the current Middle East. Based on a novel by journalist David Ignatius and scripted by William Monahan (“The Departed”), the movie is intelligent but tough on audiences—there’s a torture scene late in the proceedings that’s hard to watch. Likeable people are ruthlessly killed (usually off-screen), casually sacrificed in the interests of expediency. This may be the way things really are over there; if so, we Americans need films like this one that tell the brutal truth. The movie’s only serious weakness is an ending that’s abrupt and somewhat inconclusive.

Leonardo DiCaprio, as tough and vigorous as in “Blood Diamond,” is Roger Ferris, an Arab-speaking CIA agent we encounter as he has a meeting with an Arab who wants to change sides. But Ferris’ boss, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), turns down the deal—he’s more interested in seeing who kills the would-be defector than he is in what the man has to say. Hoffman, almost always in the U.S. talking to Ferris on an ever-present earbud phone, is after terrorist mastermind Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), behind a recent bombing in Manchester, England, that targeted American personnel.

Ferris is trying hard to do well—and to do good, though Hoffman is interested solely in results. He doesn’t care what it costs to get them, usually overriding Ferris’s more humanitarian desires, leaving the agent in a near-constant state of frustration and anger. Ferris travels about the Middle East, going from Iraq to Amman, Jordan, and elsewhere. In Amman, he makes contact with the sleek, urbane Hani (Mark Strong), greeting him with respect and the deference Hani clearly wants. But Hani is impressed by Ferris’ dedication to his work, including his almost fluent grasp of Arabic; he states only one firm requirement: Ferris is never to lie to him.

After a brief, rugged chase through the crowded streets of a teeming Arabic city, Ferris is able to kill an enemy agent before the man can reveal that a local safe house, where Al-Saleem is expected to arrive eventually, has been infiltrated by a young man (Mendi Nabbou), who’s controlled by Hani. Hani, Ferris and others meet the undercover agent out in the middle of a desert plain; Hani and his men arrive in cars, and frighten the young man into allegiance. Then they hand him his bicycle, and roar dustily off, leaving the poor guy to pedal his way back to the distant city.
That chase led to Ferris being bitten by several dogs, so he visits a clinic to begin a series of anti-rabies injections. He’s attended by Iranian refugee Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), a demure, intelligent and quietly spirited young woman who catches the American’s attention, and holds it. The story, and Ferris, return to Aisha several times; he even dines with her and her sister, and befriends Aisha’s two amusing young nephews.

But his work keeps drawing him back, keeps forcing him into one compromise after another. He is constantly used by Hoffman, who does show up in Amman at one point, who simply doesn’t care about anything other than making some headway in the war on terror. Hoffman may never have had any ideals; at this point, he’s almost blithely cynical about everything. He can carry on the details of life while on the phone; he helps his young son take a pee while telling Ferris to let that would-be defector die.

Director Ridley Scott is variable but his movies are always well-crafted and interesting; he’s a sincere, dedicated filmmaker with a sure mastery of moviemaking technique. He doesn’t always choose the best material, but his movies are always worth seeing. Lately, as with “American Gangster” and “A Good Year,” he’s been working with his “Gladiator” star, Russell Crowe, and they do very well for each other.

As the Variety review of “Body of Lies” said, here Crowe seems almost to be doing an impression of the late character actor J.T. Walsh—he even looks like Walsh. He’s a bit pudgy, calm, relaxed, given to peering at people over the tops of his rimless glasses. It’s an unusual role and performance for Crowe; he’s quiet, competent and wry, wanting only to make a little headway here and there. The costs of this are of utterly no concern to him; he’d probably regard that as an interesting but pointless idea. Hoffman is a very smooth operator; he never raises his voice, rarely shows much emotion at all beyond mild, distant interest. This is probably what his job requires.

DiCaprio’s Ferris is nearly the opposite of Hoffman. He’s equally intelligent, but he’s never entirely shed himself of his idealistic naïveté; he always hopes that the goals of his missions can be accomplished without cost to innocent bystanders. And yet in order to keep himself in the Middle East, he almost helplessly finds himself suggesting a plan to Hoffman that absolutely has to involve completely innocent outsiders. Now even Ferris has become a user.

DiCaprio is one of the most involved actors working today; he never phones in a role, but instead is always deeply, energetically committed to the task at hand—which is usually playing deeply, energetically committed men. In “Blood Diamond,” he changes from a cynical manipulator to an honest man at terrible cost—but even so, his character knows he’s finally doing the right thing. Here, in “Body of Lies,” his Ferris is in a nearly-steady state of frustration because it’s just about impossible to do the right thing; expediency is all.

Mark Frost, as the sophisticated head of Jordan intelligence, gives a strong, graceful performance; he’s striking and appealing, but he—and his character—never play all their cards at once. Alon Aboutboul has only a few scenes as the Osama Bin Laden-like terrorist mastermind, but his character’s relaxed, confident style is convincing and disconcerting. He’s not angry; he’s merely determined and sure of his power.

Technically, the movie is outstanding. The widescreen photography of Alexander Witt seems as dusty and dry as the cities and landscapes we see. The movie includes several scenes in a CIA surveillance establishment, with gigantic TV screens featuring what the small spy drones in constant operation are observing. At times, this seems almost science fictional, but it’s apparently completely authentic. We also see one way the observed have found to defeat the purpose of these spy planes. These scenes feature shots from what seem to be just a hundred yards or so above their target, to very high angles where everything and everyone is reduced to the level of scurrying insects.

The score by Marc Streitenfeld is full of Middle Eastern sounds, but is never forced, always supple and imaginative. It’s one of the best scores so far this year.

The movie opens with a quote from W.H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” written at another time when the world was in a darkening turmoil.
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

This movie doesn’t really have the same message, but it does show that we Westerners are not the kings of the world, that people from cultures older than ours are more sophisticated than we are in the labyrinthine ways of espionage and political conflict. The movie itself isn’t actually as cynical as Hoffman, but it’s more realistic than he is, certainly than Griffin is.

“Body of Lies” is a sleek, polished production, not quite as good as it could have been, but still an exciting, interesting and even occasionally amusing thriller set in the most intrigue-driven part of the world. It answers no questions about the Middle East, but it does suggest that the answers we are using are flawed.

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