A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, R, 126 mins.

Roger Ferris: Leonardo DiCaprio / Ed Hoffman: Russell Crowe / Hani: Mark Strong/ Aisha Golshifteh: Farahani / Bassam: Oscar Isaac

Directed by Ridley Scott / Written by William Monahan, based on the novel by David Ignatius

There is a cover-up going on in Ridley’s Scott’s new covert thriller, BODY OF LIES.  

On one level, the film tries to be an intense, thought-provoking, and intensely intelligent geopolitical exposé on how the current US administration engages in cloak and dagger espionage and deception in order to battle global terrorism.  It’s not so much trying to be a slam bang war movie, but rather a meditation on America’s current role in Middle Eastern affairs: this is an Intel war, not weaponry based one.   BODY OF LIES, on these cursory levels, is sophisticated and dense on a thematic level.

Yet, Scott’s film – no matter how insightful, meaningful, and social relevant it hopes to be – is a would-be masterstroke work that is hampered by routine clichés and perfunctory story elements.  Everything is here that you could have possibly wanted: a multi-Oscar nominated director (one of the best working today), two of the finest lead actors of their times, and the Oscar winning screenwriter of THE DEPARTED at the helm penning the story.  How could this fail or go astray?  

Well, the surprising aspect of BODY OF LIES is how it manages to display top-notch production values, sure-fire direction, riveting performances, and intriguing messages that are kind of buried underneath standard, run-of-the-mill action film conventions.  Initially, BODY OF LIES felt like it was going to be a sobering analysis on modern technological super power, the CIA and Pentagon’s anti-terrorism initiatives, and the theological underbelly of Middle Eastern terrorism.  If one looks simply beyond those aspects, though, the film feels like Frankenstein’s monster, made up of so many other regurgitated parts from countless other action-thrillers.

Just consider:  We have the lone hero - guileless, brave, somewhat stubborn, and untrusting of authority figures who rule over him - that fights a thanklessly never-ending battle against evil that no one else would.  He often clashes with his older, somewhat wiser, and world-wearier boss, who oftentimes seems one step ahead of the hero.  Then a cloudy and enigmatic side character is thrown in for good measure that teams up with the hero, much to the chagrin of his superior (can he be trusted…or not?).  Of course, we also have the dastardly villains bent on world domination and, last but not least, we have the obligatory love interest that catches the loving eyes of the conflicted hero, but just as he cozies up to her she is used as bait by his enemies to draw him out, securing his capture and – no fooling – leads to him stating one of most overused lines in action cinema while bravely confronting his captors: “What have you done with the girl?”

Now, to be fair, BODY OF LIES is far more epic in scope than your typical, garden variety spy flick.  It finds its way all over the globe, spanning half a dozen countries (the US, England, Holland, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria, no less).  Also, Scott does something kind of intriguing with visualizing the action and building suspense.  Instead of shooting scenes in vomit inducing, Michael Bay-esque editorial overkill, Scott often shows third party POV from satellite images with images of stunning clarity and resolution.  Yes, this is a film with ritualistic bombastic action and gunplay (bullet shells are sprayed everywhere and things blow up real good here), but BODY OF LIES displays an interesting detachment from its violence; even in a key moment involving sadistic torture, Scott never over sells the moment, nor does he build it up to voyeuristic overkill.  It’s a gruesome scene, to be sure, but its focus on tension and mood first and bloodletting second makes it scarier.

However, BODY OF LIES betrays the integrity of its first few acts with some mind-numbingly telegraphed plot developments and a hastily and needlessly tacked on romantic subplot that facilitates no other need in the film other than to help progress the story towards a climatic conclusion.  It’s kind of ironic, seeing as a film about the largely duplicitous world of spies, surveillance, and terrorism kind of double crosses viewers near the end.  The longer the film progresses, the less thoughtful and invigorating it becomes and instead emerges as more predictable, conventional, and formulaic.  Not only that, but there is also the incredulous strategy and plan that the hero drums up during the middle of the film that certainly was a hard pill to swallow, which only served to grind the veracity out of the overall story.  Now, we are not talking EAGLE EYE ridiculous, but inane nonetheless.

Alas, there are good issues explored here, as in how a self-described good, honorable, and well-intentioned nation slowly slips into tactics and strategies that its enemy employs in order to combat the enemy.   At first, the hero is a willing participant, but, inevitably he has a worldview change of heart for the better and realizes that he has some serious ethical issues with the way his nation conducts war on terror.  The hero in question is Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio, flawless here), a sort of psuedo-Man With No Name…but with a name…CIA spy that wages clandestine wars in the Middle East against an evil and virtually unstoppable Al Qaeda-like organization.  Like most classically drawn protagonists, he fights the good fight with honor, impeccable skill and timing, and a serious amount of street smarts and ruthless cunning. 

He has one ally, one of the film’s most interesting creations, named Ed Hoffman (played by the chameleon-like and Scott-regular, Russell Crowe, who gained 50 pounds to play his flabby, middle aged character).  Whereas Ferris does all of the country’s dirty field work, Hoffman is the man behind the scenes, often giving Ferris instructions and Intel via a constant cell phone correspondence (and his access to high tech satellite video).  What’s fascinating is the meager façade of Hoffman – this is a powerful man that willfully engages in blackmail, lies, and deception for a living, all for Uncle Sam, and he does so seemingly as a stay-at-home father.  Many times in the film he is giving the go ahead in top secret missions over the phone while making his children breakfast, helping them go to the bathroom, or while car pooling them to school.   This is arguably one of America’s most dangerous and calculating counter-terrorist officers, and he does his work mostly in his bathrobe.  He’s a couch potato gladiator with a Big Brother-esque spy satellite to guide him. 

The villain in the picture is a Osama bin Laden stooge named Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul). who is threatening to wage multiple bombing attacks on American and European landmarks.  Realizing that the two of them together will not be enough to rid the planet of this fiendish and fanatical lunatic, Ferris and Hoffman team up with the head of Jordan’s Intelligence Agency, Hani (Mark Strong, in one of 2008’s great supporting performances), but Ferris in particular learns first hand that Hani can be as deceptive and disingenuous as Hoffman, not to mention that he is capable of some seriously violent comeuppance if you break his cardinal rule: Don’t lie to me…or else.  Inevitably, as Ferris sees himself in a dense and complicated journey to engage the enemy, he feels conflicted by whom to trust and whom to withhold Intel from, and is also complicating matters even more with a developing relationship with a cute Jordanian nurse (nicely played by Golshifteh Farahani, in a throwaway role) that meets him while taking Ferris’s deceased colleagues’ bone splinters out of him after a nasty bombing (yuck!).

Part of the natural wonder of BODY OF LIES is to see how a workmanlike and astoundingly assured director like Scott handles the material.  The Brit veteran has made one great film after another during the current decade (if you excuse the lackluster HANNIBAL, his only hiccup), and what’s amazing is how confidently he is able to infuse life into such divergent material (his resume alone, with films spanning from GLADIATOR to BLACK HAWK DOWN to MATCHSTICK MEN to KINGDOM OF HEAVEN to last year’s impeccable AMERICAN GANGSTER chiefly demonstrates Scott’s increasing versatility).  Much like his previous films, Scott exhibits what an unqualified master he is of production design and location shooting, as he gives the brutal and foreboding landscapes of the Middle Eastern world a gritty, dusty, and cluttered verisimilitude.  And, yes, he also is a master of film artifice as well, and the action sequences and effects are handled exceptionally well.  Scott’s films, even with problematic story elements, are always glorious sights to behold and sit through.

The performances also are uniformly fantastic.  DiCaprio’s role is somewhat reminiscent to what he played in THE DEPARTED, that of a beleaguered and lost soul looking fighting for what’s right in a morally ambiguous and corrupt world.  His performance as Ferris is fiery and charismatic, but he also makes him an empathetic and believable figure, even when the character gets bogged down in unbelievable plot developments.  Crowe’s Hoffman is another grand creation of the Aussie, as he plays the pudgy CIA operative with a compelling combination of firecracker whimsicality and soft-spoken menace.  Mark Strong perhaps achieves the impossible by overshadowing both DiCaprio and Crowe with his mesmerizing turn as the Jordan Intelligence man, who uses a finely cultured demeanor and outward façade as a soft and calm spoken businessman to hide his introverted rage and discreet ferocity.  He’s also got one of the most menacing stares of the movies: Other actors need to engage in camera mugging hysterics for effect, but when Strong gazes with a stern and steely eyed gaze...it’s truly kind of frightening.

Alas, as much as I appreciated BODY OF LIES’ performances, artistic luster, and thematic issues, the screenplay (written by Oscar winner Monahan, based on the novel by Washington Post Writer David Ignatius) begins to substitute in artificial and routine plot elements to replace the moral complexities of the underlining plot.  Sometimes, the writer paints things a bit too simplistically (everyone in Intelligence lies and deceives, and Muslims are homicidal maniacs killing for God’s glory).  Also, like most rudimentary action heroes, DiCaprio’s Ferris is unrealistically resilient and stealthy, not to mention that he makes some decisions that any reasonable CIA spy would never make.  Then there is the business of his character fabricating his own fictitious terrorist group – complete with Internet dossiers, a declaration of principles, and even a real bombing that makes worldwide news – that he hopes will…lure out the terrorist leader he wishes to catch.  This whole scheme never once feels plausible nor possible.

Then there is the compulsory love story between Ferris and that cute nurse, which I guess is called upon to humanize Ferris’ already fragile and ethically detached psyche.  This is the least necessary ingredient to BODY OF LIES, seeing as the DiCaprio and Farahani have very little chemistry, not to mention that one can see relatively easily how their budding relationship will spill over to the film’s climatic – and preordained – third act.  Actresses often lament on the lackluster roles out there for them to sink their teeth into, so it’s disappointingly sad when a female character is simply shoehorned into a script for no other discernable reason other than as an economical plot device.  And…don’t get me started on a late breaking rescue of one key character in the film's conclusion, which rings largely false.

BODY OF LIES opens with an intriguing quote from W.H. Auden: “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.”  It’s a compelling anchor to get audience investment into the tense and scary real life socio-political ramifications of the film’s story.  Much of the time, BODY OF LIES is skillfully directed, visually lavish, immaculately acted, and creates real breathtaking tension.  Its attempts, however, to be a consequential message film about the treacherous and often unscrupulous covert strategies of the US in their war on terror gets lost in the way the film gives itself over to standard movie conventionalities and clichés.  There is a potentially sophisticated intelligence thriller trapped in a somewhat unsophisticated shell of stale and old-fashioned genre fundamentals.   Nonetheless, BODY OF LIES mostly works as a exciting, consummately produced and action packed spy thriller that merely could have been more with something as simple as a script rewrite.

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