Body of Lies: What I Thought
Ridley Scott directs a screenplay by William Monaghan that adopted a novel from David Ignatius. Monaghan also wrote the Departed, which was bad-ass and shows he has a knack for adaptation. The result here is a film that reflects its pedigree as a page-turning thriller, but is curiously short on stylistic flourishes. Leonardo DiCaprio and his laughable beard star as a C.I.A. field agent who is working in Iraq at the start of the film, but the plot takes him all over the middle east. Russell Crowe and his laughable Southern accent play his perpetually distracted handler who monitors the goings-on from the safety of Langley. DiCaprio is trying to flush out an Islamic terrorist who is responsible for a series of bombings across Europe. There are the requisite number of twists, turns, and double crosses as the operation plays out. Much of the movie takes place in Jordan. DiCaprio sets up shop and has to contend with the ineptitude of the local C.I.A. station, the cumbersome meddling of his superiors, and a thorny relationship with the head of local intelligence.
Body of Lies is an espionage movie, not an Issue Movie. That’s an important distinction to make, and Body of Lies is a better film for it. To be sure, the story does make a few points about the way America conducts its clandestine foreign policy, but it does so with a relatively restrained hand. Scott (almost) never beats you the over the head with the political commentary and the film is at its best when it sticks to the plot and allows us to watch some realistic spying. Body of Lies has more in common with lighter fare of the Spy Games school than the more contemplative likes of Syriana (which was excellent) or Lions for Lambs (which was not)).
The only critique that the movie makes with any firmness is that foreign intelligence comes from the men on the ground, and the suits who run the show need to pay more attention to their human assets. Sure, there are headfakes in the direction of issues like torture and the film even opens with a quote about the dangers of blowback. But the makers of Body of Lies don’t seem to have their hearts in creating a searing indictment of anyone except for the Fat Cats in Washington. Crowe’s character is clearly removed from the realities of the espionage game. He is sharp, and has some charm and intelligence so he isn’t a total straw man. But compared with Dicaprio’s field agent, who not only speaks Arabic but has a strong grasp of the local culture and how to navigate through it, he can’t measure up. With some admirably spartan flashbacks, Scott conveys the idea that this knowledge likely comes from DiCaprio’s failed marriage to an Arabic woman. The result is that he has a real stake in the proceedings personified in the form of Aisha, his love interest. Crowe’s character spends the whole movie ignoring his family as he speaks to DiCaprio on a bluetooth headset. He even orders an assassination at his son’s soccer game.
The performances are generally strong, although Crowe’s accent is a little over the top and Dicaprio’s fades in and out like Kevin Costner’s English one in Robin Hood. The commercials created more of a sense that Crowe and Dicaprio would be working at cross-purposes, or at least have an adversarial relationship. There was room for that in the script, but the way Scott films their scenes gives the impression of a more muted conflict between the two. This feels like something of a missed opportunity. Body of Lies would have been even more interesting if the two leads engaged in some serious verbal sparring. As it is, their exchanges feel more like frat boy banter than two people seriously arguing. Despite the fact that Crowe’s meddling causes some serious problems for DiCaprio and puts him in danger more than once, it never seems like the two are on a real collision course. Their conflict plays out in their contrasts. Crowe is doughy and aging. DiCaprio is lean and on the rise. Crowe is out of touch and distracted. DiCaprio is saavy and engaged. Parallel structure is all well and good, but would a more intense confrontation have been too much to ask?
The film is also muted in terms of its visuals. There are some action sequences and they play out clearly and serve the plot well, but they have none of the panache of Scott’s usual work (the opening battle in Gladiator for example). There is some fun with satellite imagery, but Body of Lies mostly plays it straight. It isn’t a bad film. It’s an interesting story well told but it lacks that certain something. It wins points with me for not going overboard and inflating itself with a sense of purpose, but I can’t shake the feeling that Scott erred too far in the other direction. The result is a workmanlike film that I doubt I will remember at all until it comes on HBO next summer.