Movie Review: Body of Lies
By Matthew Huntley
October 20, 2008
As a thriller, Body of Lies has more in common with Clear and Present Danger than Syriana. It's a serious movie, but we're not meant to take it completely seriously. Director Ridley Scott seems more inclined to entertain us than inform us of current events or try to make a profound statement about world affairs. His movie uses issues like the Iraq War and terrorism as a stage for explosions, chase scenes, wry humor and even subtle romance. Much of the movie looks and feels familiar as far as the genre is concerned, but as we follow the plot, it hooks us in, if only by a slight margin.
The movie opens with a threatening video from an Al Qaeda terrorist named Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), who is the mastermind behind several civilian bombings. CIA operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is on his tail and has a lead in Iraq who could help track Al-Saleem down. But Ferris' plans go awry and his friendly contact ends up getting killed in the process. When Ferris comes to, a doctor picks fragments of his friend's bones out of his skin. He pulls a piece out of his arm and keeps it in a matchbox, perhaps as a reminder he still has something worth fighting for.
Ferris transfers to Jordan, where's he's kept under a watchful eye by his sneaky superior, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who's more power-hungry and conniving than he is interested in stopping global terrorism. Unlike Ferris, Hoffman doesn't seem to be in the anti-terrorist business for humanity's sake. He's in it for the control and attention. Ferris has more of a conscience, which is why he actively seeks out the Chief of Jordanian Intelligence, Hani Salaam (Mark Strong). Ferris suspects Al-Saleem has a safe-house in Jordan and asks Salaam to help take it down. Salaam's only rule: "Never lie to me."
The operation fails when Hoffman decides to use another man, who gives it away the safe-house is being watched by the CIA. After Ferris chases down one of Saleem's men, he's bitten by rabid street dogs and is taken to a hospital where he meets an Iranian nurse named Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani). He's immediately stricken by her beauty and coerces his way into seeing her again. He even meets her family, which is a big step from where she comes from.
In a movie like this, Aisha would typically only exist for one reason: to play a love interest or a kidnapping victim. I won't deny either one for Body of Lies, but I was happy her and Ferris' relationship gets developed beyond just the plot's requirements.
The last half of the movie revolves around Ferris' scheme to make up another terrorist organization in order to catch Al-Saleem's attention so that he'll make contact. Ferris assumes Al-Saleem will be interested in his own competition, or perhaps he'll consider the other terrorists brethren. The way Ferris devises this plan is actually kind of neat for a movie plot, but it's also not completely implausible for a real-life situation. I believed such plans could actually be carried out by our government, especially since the movie is based on a book by David Ignatius, a real-life former CIA operative. I'm sure most of the plot is dramatized for entertainment purposes, but I can see elements of truth within it, which made me appreciate it more. In the end, it does surrender to the age-old "perfect timing" complex and a full exposition of what happened during the climax, but it's still entertaining and we do care about what's going on.
A lot of that is thanks to DiCaprio, who exudes his usual screen presence and energy. He convinces us he's a disciplined CIA man about to be pushed over the edge. Crowe, who has put on weight to play Hoffman, doesn't have as large a role as the ads suggest, but he owns and distinguishes it with a sly wit and an underlying threat. Hoffman's look and manipulation reminded me of Karl Rove - a man you love to dislike but can't stop watching.
From a technical standpoint, Body of Lies has Ridley Scott's signature look, feel and fast pace. Once again, he's teamed up with his longtime editor, Pietro Scalia, and despite the rapid and ceaseless cuts, they keep us tuned into the plot. There was a point when I felt there was too much cutting going on, but Scott has a way of gluing together imperfect stories through style. This won't be considered one of his greatest works, but he shows enthusiasm for the material.
I can't highly recommend Body of Lies because it feels derivative of several other international spy thrillers, namely those adapted from Tom Clancy novels, only this one is grittier. We're also kept at a distance from the characters to really know much about them outside of their day jobs (we know Ferris is getting a divorce and Hoffman has a family, but little is explored in terms of their personal lives), but I found the movie, as a whole, intriguing and mildly exciting. It's not an important film, but it doesn't try to be. If Body of Lies only wants to be a thriller, then it's successful in getting that job done.