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Body of Lies


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A familiar, by-the-numbers political thriller content to play by the rules of its own slightly skewed logic, “Body of Lies” comes packaged with several players from Hollywood’s elite but does not add up to much. Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, the movie trumpets its own self-seriousness in addressing America’s preoccupation with shadowy Islamic fundamentalists who seek to terrorize the West. Joining a pack of recent films on the subject, including “The Kingdom” and “Rendition,” “Body of Lies” aspires to the level of intelligence and intrigue provided by “Syriana,” but never comes close to matching that movie’s quality. The very best thing about “Body of Lies” is the quotation from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” that appears at the beginning. How could the movie that follows be as eloquent?

Written by William Monahan and based on the novel by David Ignatius, “Body of Lies” oversimplifies the relationship between CIA operatives in the field and the geographically isolated commanders who give orders from the safety of Langley, Virginia. Time and again, Scott cuts between DiCaprio’s Roger Ferris, imperiled in the streets of various locations throughout the Middle East, and Crowe’s Ed Hoffman, who calmly makes life and death decisions via cell phone while he pads around in his bathrobe at home or takes his kids to school. While there might be something to the argument that America’s failure to make real progress in the so-called “War on Terror” has to do with arrogance and elitism, Crowe’s version of the blunt manager borders on caricature.

The contrast between the characters played by the principal performers is so great, Crowe comes across as more of a supporting actor than a full-fledged lead. Meanwhile, DiCaprio throws himself into his part with gusto, and Scott puts him through his paces in a physically demanding role. DiCaprio’s Ferris is a rising agency star who – unlike his boss – understands the importance of face-to-face intelligence gathering. Fluent in Arabic and comfortable bouncing around Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and other locales, Ferris establishes a valuable relationship with Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), the head of Jordan’s General Intelligence Department.

“Body of Lies” asks the audience to accept a variety of far-fetched situations, and one of the least believable subplots revolves around a tentative romance that blossoms between Ferris and an Iranian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani). It is difficult to swallow the premise that a seasoned professional like Ferris would risk attracting negative attention by initiating a public courtship, especially when he is in the middle of cooking up an intricate plot designed to draw out an elusive terror mastermind. Convention apparently requires some kind of love interest, however, even if the result fails to cohere.

One wonders whether Hollywood ever manages to come close to the way in which covert operations are carried out in the real world. “Body of Lies” perpetuates the notion that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles transmit high-definition images back to giant banks of monitors, while tactical decisions are made quickly and effectively thousands of miles from the action. The reality must be far messier than that, but the concept provides Scott with an opportunity to orchestrate action sequences whenever the dialogue gets too dull. Unfortunately, after awhile even the action becomes routine, making “Body of Lies” a rather disappointing current events picture.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/13/08.

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