Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 08, 2008
A hoary beard and a thankless fate await Leonardo DiCaprio in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies.
Body of Lies
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by William Monahan, based on David Ignatius’ novel. Rated R.
Great Scott?

The famed director’s fascination with Man vs. The Man continues in Body of Lies.


Thematically speaking, director Ridley Scott seems to be preoccupied with imperial hubris and its harmful effects on individuals. In Gladiator, Scott pits the Roman emperor Commodus’ hubris against the upstanding moral code of a politically marginalized general. In Black Hawk Down, Scott defeats American hubris with barbaric, qat-addled Somali militiamen. You can even make a case for this theme in Alien, as human hubris ultimately leads to the undoing (or disemboweling, to be honest) of a starship full of corporate pawns. So it goes without saying then that Scott’s new one, Body of Lies, takes the same tack. Too bad it doesn’t leave a lot for viewers to empathize with.
After showing us a botched raid on a Manchester terrorist hideout (resulting in a lot of blown-up British soldiers), the film moves to Iraq, implying not so subtly that whatever happened in England has roots in the Middle East. There, CIA field agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is overseeing the torture of an Arab “asset.” When the informant dies from his beatings, Ferris calls his stateside superior, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe, who delivers folksy, Southern bureaucratese in a Foghorn Leghorn drawl that goes in and out like a stolen WiFi signal), assuaging Ferris’ sense of failure by telling him the asset “just dried up.”
Having a hard time empathizing with anyone yet? Well, see, screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) thought of that, which is why Ferris, after suffering bites from rabid dogs during a pursuit, is attended to by Aisha, an attractive Iranian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani). Since he has to get a rabies shot every week for a month, Ferris has an excuse to go see and romance her. When he takes her to lunch, a baddie secretly takes a photo of them — and at this point, the hostage-exchange problem that will be taking place toward the end of the film becomes obvious.
Romantic entanglements are hallmarks of just about every spy movie, but Ferris and Aisha are never around each other enough to make us believe that he’s gone head over heels for her. It’s difficult to believe that a cagey, callous spy wouldn’t know better than to get involved with a local, so the romantic subplot falls totally flat. When you discover its connection to the resolution, it becomes even more irritating.
However, when he’s not running through the grimy back alleys of Amman — and why is it that every Near-Eastern city is choked with drivers who like to just pull out in reverse whenever they damn well feel like it? — romancing nurses or careening over the Iraqi desert in a black Mercedes, Ferris has to negotiate an alliance with Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) of the Jordanian spook outfit. Strong plays Salaam as the well-heeled, methodical counterpoint to Crowe’s slovenly impatient CIA boss, and for all his genteel menace, Salaam is much more sympathetic a character than either Ferris or Hoffman. When Hoffman manipulates Ferris into fibbing (Salaam’s only request is another spy cliche: “Never lie to me”), Strong conveys a sense of genuinely hurt feelings underpinning his icy rage. Ferris promises to share information, but this goes out the window when he and Hoffman devise a scheme to draw out a prominent terrorist leader through the use of a patsy. When their scheme unravels (or cracks under a ball-peen hammer, in the film’s most gruesome scene), it’s easy to get behind Salaam when he refuses Ferris’ pleas for help. And in the end, when DiCaprio’s battered and weirdly bearded face is furious at being set up, you sort of want to shake Salaam’s hand for refusing to be made a fool.
Body of Lies is entertaining enough. The plot provides the requisite backstabbing and surprise explosions, and Scott’s proclivity for framing teeth-grinding violence amps up the tension from 0 to 11 in a matter of seconds. The film lacks Black Hawk Down’s sweaty desperation and suffers from a lack of urgency. The pivotal bombings in Lies just don’t have the sickening, visceral impact of Black Hawk’s crashes, and you are left to puzzle whether you were supposed to think of the movie as fast-paced noir or slow-burning thriller.

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