Thursday, October 23, 2008
Sir Ridley Scott is looking to take the John Le Carré style of spy fiction into the 21st century in his new film “Body of Lies,” an adaptation of David Ignatius’ thriller, and the results are hit and miss. We follow CIA field agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he works with contacts to find Al-Saleem, a high-ranking terrorist orchestrating a number of bombings in Europe. Calling the shots all the way back in Langley, Virginia is Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), a fat desk jockey who’s always planning ahead of his agents without letting them in on the secrets.
As one would expect, the two are polar opposites. Hoffman does not care about the potential casualties of the mission, nor does he seem to understand Middle Eastern diplomacy, despite being in charge of the Middle East division. Ferris, on the other hand, is an kindler soul; he treats his contacts with respect, cares for whatever partner the locals assign him, and feels a growing sense of disillusionment with his job, at which he is nevertheless brilliant.
The film constantly cuts between locations, ranging from Iraq to Langley to Jordan, where the bulk of the plot unfolds. As Ferris sets up surveillance, we get constant bird’s eye views from circling spy planes. If the images they produce are at all realistic, then it’s only a matter of time before the United States find anyone it’s looking for. Then again, as the film reminds us several times, this technology relies on the ability to link with other technology, and that terrorists can effectively disappear by returning to the Stone Age, so to speak. They remove batteries from cell phones, destroy computers, communicate face to face; in a futuristic war, they are holding their own by running to the past.
In an attempt to lure Al-Saleem to communicating by phone (and thus exposing his position), Ferris dreams up a bold scheme: create a fake terrorist to steal Al-Saleem’s thunder, making him jealous enough to come out of hiding. Along the way, Ferris joins forces with Jordanian intelligence, run by a suave chief named Hani Salaam. Played marvelously by Mark Strong, Hani is a constant in the spy genre: the partying, drinking quasi-socialite who never loses focus of his command. When he meets Ferris, he takes an instant shine to the young man, but warns the American never to lie to him, which seems an odd request in the spy field.
So far so good, right? Well, nothing mucks things up faster than a poorly thought-out romance, and the one on display in “Body of Lies” is the most inexplicable in a long time. Ferris, who remains focused on his job even as he doubts its worth, strikes up a relationship with an Arabic nurse named Aisha. Of course, their love can never be because they can’t have a meaningful conversation while Ferris is in covert ops, and Aisha will be ostracized by the community for a relationship with an “infidel.” It’s nothing but a plot device to lead to a hamstrung ending so implausible it hurts the realism of the film’s visuals.
No director is more qualified to make this film than Ridley Scott. His “Black Hawk Down” stands as one of the two great films about modern warfare (the other being “Three Kings”) and, once the director’s cut re-inserted the plot of the movie, “Kingdom of Heaven” was a brilliant dissection of Christian/Muslim relations, both past and present. But this is an action film posing as a study of our enemies, though it does have a few genuine moments of clarity that fit neatly into the story. Others are clumsily inserted, such as Hani telling Ferris out of nowhere that torture is ineffective. Ferris comes off like a mix of Jason Bourne and James Bond; he takes Bourne’s freshness and disillusionment and Bond’s apparent godlike invincibility and ability to always make time for some ridiculous skirt-chasing and tries to mesh them like a child trying to force a rectangular block into a circular hole. Ultimately, the film’s visual realism and great performances from its leads make it a fun watch, but the mounting ridiculousness will ensure it a place on Scott’s second-tier of “dumb but fun” films alongside “Gladiator” and “American Gangster.”
Incidentally, a new track from Guns ‘N Roses is played over the credits. It sounds like a gravelly woman crooning over some electronic-funk, white soul track with a splash of Middle Eastern feel. It’s kind of good, but the elements don’t mesh that well. Come to think of it, it’s a solid aural metaphor for the film itself.