by Mel Valentin
Ridley’s Scott’s ("American Gangster," "Kingdom of Heaven," "Black Hawk Down," "Gladiator," "Blade Runner," "Alien") latest film, "Body of Lies," an adaptation of "Washington Post" columnist David Ignatius’ novel, is another in a seemingly endless series of post-9/11 political thrillers. Slickly produced, directed, and acted, "Body of Lies" strives to make grand political, social and cultural statements about the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT), the mistakes we, as a country, have made in the GWOT and the best way forward to ameliorate those mistakes and preempt future terrorist attacks. At its center lies an unsurprising, if unsophisticated, plea for cross-cultural and intra-religious faith, as well as a belief in treating our allies as ends and not means to an end (i.e., defeating terrorism).Like the James Bond and Jason Bourne films it emulates, Body of Lies jumps and skips between several different locations, from Iraq, where a young, naïve CIA operative, Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), attempts to prevent terrorist attacks against Americans in Iraq and elsewhere, to his handler in the United States, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), an old school cynic who doesn’t blink when Ferris and his driver, Bassam (Oscar Isaac), are attacked in Iraq by terrorists and Bassam dies. Ferris barely survives the attack, bruised, battered, but still dedicated to fighting and defeating terrorism. Meanwhile, a new terrorist mastermind, Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul), and his operatives strike in England and the Netherlands, killing members of a police strike and innocent civilians, respectively.
"A spy/political thriller that just misses the mark."
Hoffman assigns the still recovering Ferris to Jordan to track Al-Saleem’s terrorist network and hopefully, Al-Saleem himself. In Jordan, Ferris takes over the local CIA office and meets Hani (Mark Strong), the head of Jordanian intelligence. The Western-educated, English speaking Hani prefers designer suits and cigars to traditional Arabic dress or customs, but he’s still a ruthless authoritarian under the Western designer suits. Ferris and Hani first focus on a Jordanian safe house for in- and out-bound terrorists. When that fails, Ferris devises an elaborate ruse to convince Al-Saleem that another terrorist mastermind, Omar Sadiki (Ali Suliman), has emerged on the international scene. Ferris also develops a tentative relationship with Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), a half-Jordanian, half-Iranian nurse who provides him with treatment after a particularly violent confrontation with a terrorist suspect and some dogs.
Adapted by William Monahan (The Departed) from David Ignatius' novel, Body of Lies uses the GWOT and the Middle as a backdrop for exploring several distinct responses to terrorism. Hoffman represents the cold, impartial, disconnected, and ultimately self-defeating (at least in the filmmakers’ perspective) approach to defeating terrorism which sacrifices individual rights, and often the individuals themselves, for the greater good (however ill-defined that may be). Hani represents Hoffman’s opposite: he’s just as willing to use brute force to achieve his aims. It’s Ferris, however, that’s meant to be the focus of our sympathy (and identification), the well-intentioned not-so-ugly American who blunders toward self- and other-awareness, who, presumably, chooses a different path, one in which the respect of and understanding of Middle Eastern cultures, hopefully leads to accommodation.
While that may be overly optimistic or, depending on your political beliefs, dangerously naïve, Body of Lies has other problems, namely it’s convoluted, murky storyline that depends on increasingly implausible plot turns, no less so than in an underwritten, underwhelming climax that stretches credulity to the breaking point and beyond. And that’s not including the contradictory depiction of Arabs and Muslims, who range from the vengeful, Koran-spouting Al-Saleem to the autocratic Hani to the self-sacrificing underling to the passive love interest (and all the nameless, silent swarthy, bearded men hanging around in the background).Story faults aside, "Body of Lies" has its share of well-choreographed action set pieces. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Ridley Scott’s filmmaking career, but at least those set pieces keep "Body of Lies" moving, even when the final destination seems unclear. As an A-list director, Scott, of course, could draw on the best talent Hollywood could buy, which he promptly did by hiring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe to take on the first and second leading roles, respectively. That both DiCaprio and Crowe give convincing, committed performances is a given, but Scott also draws on solid supporting turns from Mark Strong as Hani, the Jordanian intelligence chief and relative newcomer Golshifteh Farahani, who gives her role as Aisha a depth and dimension otherwise missing from the screenplay.
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originally posted: 10/10/08 15:00:00