For all of Ridley Scott’s obvious talent as a storyteller, it’s becoming apparent as he ages that his films will only become more and more about pretending to be about something than actually communicating some kind of idea. Last year’s American Gangster was a good example both of Scott’s ability to corral a relatively complex story within the confines of a two-hour film and his reluctance to actually come out and condemn drug dealer Frank Lucas for pumping more crime and violence into Harlem (which let’s face it, when your guy is shipping heroin into the states inside the coffins of dead soldiers from Vietnam, you really shouldn’t have to do much to make him look bad). But Body of Lies is somehow sadly worse, a misuse of two powerful actors in a muddled, clumsy story that tries to be all things to all men and winds up being far less than what a competent film dealing with modern-day terrorism should be. Part of this, admittedly, is out of Scott’s hands: We’re still in the middle of what passes for the war on terror, and as such still in the construction process of how those stories can be made into myths and transformed into their own subgenre of film. But Scott takes too many short cuts and falls prey to the easiest and dumbest tropes of that emerging group of films, and as such what could have been a compelling, character-driven film about the cost of humanity in unending war becomes another pat “thriller” that’s just not that interesting.
Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a CIA operative on the ground in the Middle East, bouncing from Iraq to Jordan to wherever he needs to go in order to take down terrorists cells on behalf of his boss back home, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who heads the company’s Near East division with the kind of grim thirst for power that makes him truly dangerous. But Ferris is superficially more conflicted about the cost-benefit ratio of the intelligence work he’s doing, as when he promises asylum to a defective cell member only to have Hoffman tell him to cut the man loose, effectively condemning the Iraqi to torture and murder at the hands of his brothers. I say “superficially” because Ferris’ concern crops up only erratically at first before sliding into the background, as if screenwriter William Monahan, working from David Ignatius’ novel, was more concerned about introducing Ferris’ emotional qualms as a shortcut to communicate complexity instead of actually making him complex. Hoffman sends Ferris hopping around the region, though most of the film unfolds in Amman, Jordan, where Ferris takes over the local intelligence outpost in an attempt to find and capture a man named Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), a terrorist leader responsible for a rash of bombings throughout Europe. To do this, Ferris forges a partnership with Hani (Mark Strong), the head of security or defense or something similarly intel-related for the King of Jordan.
It’s only in the second act that Body of Lies begins to flirt with something resembling believability in the way it refers to modern terrorism. There’s a fleeting mention of “Gitmo” buried in one exchange, and at one point Ferris says, “Osama fed Zarqawi to the dogs because he was getting too powerful.” This is the only reference in the film to Osama bin Laden, though there are a few more to al-Qaeda and, toward the end, Guantanamo Bay and subsequent implications of prisoner abuses. On one level, the use of actual names and places that have factored so heavily into the news in the past decade goes a long way toward giving the film a leg up on immediacy and believability; it’s always a cheat when current political thrillers discuss the war on terror without actually referencing bin Laden, so it’s good that Scott’s film isn’t afraid to walk the walk. But the level of obliqueness keeps the film from becoming the honest examination of the military-industrial complex Scott halfheartedly wants it to be, and what’s more, the rest of the film leans too much on what are fast becoming cheap visual and aural cues to feel authentic. The score from composer Marc Streitenfeld — who worked with Scott on A Good Year and American Gangster — is full of the pseudo-regional flares and sitar stings and woodwinds that sound sufficiently “Middle Eastern” but do nothing but add a level of lame predictability to the film. Imagine a cop thriller set in Texas that used nothing but Toby Keith, or just think about the loud blasts of nonsense chords that accompany every fake shock in a C-grade horror movie, and you start to realize how lazy it is for the score to try so hard to sound “foreign” at the expense of actually accompanying the onscreen action.
As the narrative struggles to play out, Ferris pinballs from one country to another and has increasingly pissy conversations with Hoffman about just how certain operations should be executed. But though Ferris is clearly meant to be the hero — he’s given a love interest, and come on, it’s Leonardo DiCaprio — Hoffman winds up being the most believable character, if the least likable. Hoffman is an arrogant, often slovenly man, but he’s unwavering in his efforts to carry out what he believes to be his mission, and to do it his way. Ferris claims to be sickened by what’s going on around him, even expressing his sadness over the situation in Iraq to the woman he’s trying to date, but he shows no qualms when he, say, picks a patsy at random and frames him as a low-level al-Qaeda operative just to kick up dirt and try to smoke out Al-Saleem. How can Ferris be outraged over backstabbing, or even just bureaucratic manipulation, in the intelligence community when he’s all too eager to set up a crooked sting operation?
It’s only DiCaprio’s screen presence and maturity as a performer that keep his hypocrisy from drowning the character. Ferris is, or at least could have been, an interesting character, and DiCaprio does what he can to project an air of conflicted manhood. Crowe is equally good, and the 10 years he has on DiCaprio give Hoffman an air of faded youth, of resentment at the way Ferris seems to be succeeding on the ground even on his own terms.
However, the actors aren’t enough to save the film from being overlong and anticlimactic, or to save it from lacking the courage of its convictions. There’s a definite point where the film could have ended, but Scott avoids a darker resolution in favor of a giant deus ex machina that almost negates what came before. If the hell of the human condition is that we’re doomed to only truly learn by experience, then the film doesn’t just cheat the viewer, it also robs the characters (Ferris in particular) of a very necessary catharsis and keeps the film from being the complex and bracing story it clearly wants to be. And in doing that — in closing the door on a harrowing but more deserving climax in favor of one that feels like an easy way out — Scott’s film becomes a failure.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Whoever Is Unjust, Let Him Be Unjust Still
Film | October 10, 2008 | Comments ()