BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 10, 2008
Three years ago, Ridley Scott’s ill-conceived epic Kingdom of Heaven implicitly asked the question, “What would a movie about the Crusades look like if everyone in it had a 21st-century ideological outlook?” (The unsurprising answer: It would look nothing at all like the Crusades.) With Body of Lies, Scott once again turns his eye to conflict in the Middle East, though this time he wisely keeps his moral and historical frames in present-day alignment. The result is a film that, while far less muddled, still doesn’t have much new to say.
Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a CIA field operative; Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) is the stateside handler with whom he is in frequent disagreement. Ferris is a jaded humanist who likes the Middle East and believes America’s best hopes for defeating terrorism lie in open cooperation with our allies in the region. Hoffman is a callous cynic who declares, “Ain’t nobody likes the Middle East” and “I don’t have time for cultural sensitivity issues.” I’ll leave it to you to guess which is the good guy.
Ferris and Hoffman are (of course) closing in on a terrorist mastermind who’s behind a series of bombings in Europe and plans to bring his pyrotechnic show to the U.S. They (of course) make common cause with a regional law enforcement agent (Mark Strong), who may or may not really be on their side. And Ferris (of course) becomes involved with a pretty local lass (Golshifteh Farahani as an Iranian nurse), who becomes an unwitting pawn in his plots and counterplots. The movie jumps from London to Iraq to Washington to Amsterdam to Jordan, Dubai, Turkey, and Syria with box-checking diligence. There are betrayals and kidnappings and rogue operations and collateral damage. Things are not infrequently blown up. The elements of the film, in other words, will be reasonably familiar to anyone who saw Syriana or The Kingdom or Traitor or Spy Game.
There are some pleasant surprises along the way. The script, adapted by William Monaghan from a novel by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, shrewdly sticks to shades of gray; those waiting for a stark double cross that will reveal the movie’s true villain will wait in vain. DiCaprio and Crowe deliver their customary quality, even if neither shows us anything terribly fresh. (I, for one, look forward to the next role in which DiCaprio doesn’t feel a scruffy goatee is needed to confirm his postpubescence.) But the movie’s true revelation is Syriana vet Strong, who plays head of Jordanian intelligence Hani Salaam. Trim and elegant in narrow pinstripes, Salaam is crafty, charismatic, and sophisticated, with an odd but charming insistence on referring to male colleagues as “my dear.” He is a man capable of brutality when it is required, but glad to avoid it when it is not. A scene in which he administers a carrot to an al Qaeda suspect in place of the anticipated stick is perhaps the best in the film.
Scott directs with characteristic panache--the rapid editing and varied camera speeds, a delight in aerial surveillance shots evidently inherited from brother Tony’s Enemy of the State-- but as in Kingdom of Heaven his aesthetic and political purposes are in tension: How upset can we be about a deadly explosion when Scott has labored so mightily to make it look cool? Though evidently intended to straddle the divide between action thriller and geopolitical fable, when pushed, Body of Lies tumbles into the former genre. (Its chief bid at seriousness, a confrontational colloquy with the top terrorist near the end of the film, comes across as the awkward regurgitation of a hastily swallowed subscription to The Economist.) In the end, it is an above-average entertainment, though not a terribly memorable one. By contrast, a sequel following the exploits of spymaster Hani Salaam, the George Smiley of Jordan--now that, my dear, would be something to see.
Christopher Orr is a Senior Editor of The New Republic