A film review by Craig J. Koban
BODY OF LIES
2008, R, 126 mins.
2008, R, 126 mins.
Roger Ferris: Leonardo DiCaprio / Ed Hoffman: Russell Crowe / Hani: Mark
Strong/ Aisha Golshifteh: Farahani / Bassam: Oscar Isaac
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
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?
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
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.
are not talking EAGLE EYE ridiculous,
but inane nonetheless.
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
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
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
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.