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 V.17 No.41 | October 9 - 15, 2008 

Film Review

Body of Lies

DiCaprio and Crowe play “who do you trust?” in cutting-edge spy drama

Starbucks. Kabul. Nice.
Starbucks. Kabul. Nice.

Body of Lies

Directed by Ridley Scott

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe

The day after the House of Representatives rejected the first economic bailout package, sending the stock market into a 700-point freefall, the top three search terms on Yahoo were “Ivanka Trump,” “Brangelina” and “dog costumes,” proving that Americans are strenuously adept at avoiding their problems. That’s as good an excuse as any why films dealing with our current War on Terror (or whatever you want to call it) have failed again and again at the box office. The most recent was the PTSD road trip drama The Lucky Ones starring Tim Robbins and Rachel McAdams, which opened on Sept. 28 with a whopping $183,000.

Despite outward appearances, Leo’s heart will go on.
Despite outward appearances, Leo’s heart will go on.

Director Ridley Scott appears undaunted by these facts. The famed British director has been in war mode for quite some time, having delivered G.I. Jane, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven in just the last decade. Now he jumps into today’s Middle Eastern firestorm with a film based on Washington Post columnist David Ignatius’ 2007 novel about a CIA operative uncovering a lead on a major terrorist leader in Jordan. Perhaps wisely, the director has packed his cast with audience-friendly faces, hiring Leonardo DiCaprio as our CIA operative and Russell Crowe as his seemingly omniscient boss.

Though it deals in deep detail with the day-to-day workings of modern-day terrorist organizations, Body of Lies relies on the age-old “who do you trust?” atmosphere of classic espionage thrillers. Scott and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed, Kingdom of Heaven) dump us directly into this world of high-tech backstabbing without so much as an opening narration, leaving audiences to their own intelligences to sort out character, setting and narrative thrust. Even without knowing who exactly is on what side, viewers will be sucked in by the film’s fresh dynamic.

Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) is a young go-getter in the CIA whose every move in the Middle East is watched over and coordinated by his stateside boss, Ed Hoffman (Crowe, going chubby and gray-haired and proving more chameleonic than DiCaprio who--for all his scruff--still looks baby-faced). The two men are rarely ever in the same time zone, but Ed has got a permanent satellite fix on Roger, and the two carry on nonstop conversations via cell phone. Yeah, you’d think the CIA’s head of Near East Operations might have one or two other agents to supervise, but the back-and-forth banter between the two men forms the backbone of this intrigue-filled film.

Roger is the ideal field agent. He speaks Arabic and respects the people he works with. Ed, far removed from the battle he’s obsessively coordinating, treats everyone like expendable pawns in a giant, international chess game. When Roger turns up a lead that might direct the agency toward a high-value terrorist cell leader named Al-Saleem, Ed sends him to Jordan to sweet-talk the country’s head of security, the quietly menacing Hani (Mark Strong). A round-robin tournament of lies, backstabbing, double-crosses and double agents ends with Roger kicked out of the country. With time running out to nab Al-Saleem, Roger drafts a risky Hail Mary operation, setting up a fake terrorist cell to flush the jealous Al-Saleem from hiding.

As usual, Scott proves himself a masterful craftsman. Body of Lies is slick as sweet crude. Much of it is shot on handheld cameras on location in Maryland and Morocco. The technique isn’t obtrusive, however, giving just the right amount of jittery life to the film’s many scenes of explosive, street-level danger. Scott knows how to handle action, and Body of Lies provides plenty of hair-raising thrills amid the dizzying spin of political intrigue. Scott places his camera right in the heart of things, allowing audiences to feel the concussion of the bomb blast as it rips apart a building and hear the debris as it comes down in a hard concrete rain. Of course, the constant intimations of torture, beheadings and suicide bombings may be too realistic for audiences to handle.

The real thrill of the story, though, comes from the friction between DiCaprio’s conscientious, at-risk agent and Crowe’s manipulative laptop general. One gambles his life and the lives of those around him every time he sets foot on the street. The other coordinates a war while picking his kids up from soccer practice. Though they’re restricted to a couple brief face-to-face interactions, the sharply written interplay between these two A-list actors is worth the price of admission alone--lifting this sophisticated espionage drama above the usual spies and lies into a refreshingly human realm.


Body of Lies

As always, director Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) has crafted a highly polished piece of film work with this contemporary Mideast spy thriller. The dynamic of the script is compelling, casting Leonardo DiCaprio as an idealized CIA field agent trying to flush out a terrorist leader in Jordan and Russell Crowe as a careless Washington bureaucrat moving his overseas agents around like pawns. Credulity is stretched (does Crowe have nobody else working for him?), but Scott keeps tensions high. 125 minutes R.

 
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