With the spread of talent involved in Body of Lies — Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Strong, William Monahan — you’d be justified in hoping for something significantly more powerful than the plodding result. This is a movie that confuses minutiae for meaning, and while Scott’s latest asks a lot of questions about our intelligence operations in the Middle East, it only rarely rises above the grit of day to day operations to deliver a punch.
The questions are Big Ones: how are we conducting the business of intelligence in the Middle East? What are the flaws in our methods? Do we even understand the people we seek to manipulate?
‘We’, in this case, are represented by Russell Crowe as pudgy, insistent CIA officer Ed Hoffman. Rolling hurriedly through every encounter, covert or otherwise, Hoffman is all the things we’re afraid America might really be: duplicitous, selfish, overbearing and demanding, but able to get results useful enough that dealing with him might be worth the effort. He’s ideally matched to Crowe who, aside from a tendency to peer up over his glasses like an aged version of George Clooney in ER, renders the character as the beast you’d expect an unassuming everyman granted near-limitless power to become.
Hoffman is the overseer of Roger Ferris, a ground operative who’s gone half native. Able to pass as Arab(ish) when sporting a beard, Ferris has learned Arabic and developed an empathetic understanding of the people observes in the course of his work. But he’s still an outsider — too earnest, and torn between Hoffman and the more humanist tendencies he’d prefer dominated his work.
Relocated to Jordan after being seriously wounded in an operation, Ferris finds himself at odds with Hoffman over an alliance with Hani (Mark Strong), the leader of Jordanian intelligence. Their grand goal is to capture Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul), a terrorist known to be responsible for a series of attacks. Ferris eventually concocts a plan to draw out Al-Saleem by creating a fake terror organization that is even more ambitious and effective.
Within the parameters of a Middle East intelligence thriller, there are few places Body of Lies fails to go. It is inside the cockpit of cutting edge spy planes that surveil and coordinate CIA operations; inside small British terror cells; in Hoffman’s back yard as he speaks to Ferris at 6am; in the home of two sisters, Iranian ex-pats, living in Jordan.
You can’t fault Scott’s ambition as he tries to build a comprehensive portrait of how terror and intelligence work around the globe. But that’s an impossible task, and like a technician caught tripped up in a mess of ugly wiring, he’s constantly fettered by details that fail to add any signal to the noise. The central plot concept — drawing terror out with terror — is strong enough to provide a framework for everything the film wants to accomplish, but Scott can’t resist the tangents.
DiCaprio, in concert with Crowe, helps give the film a lot of shape and muscle. Though his accents waver in and out of credulity — at times on purpose, I suspect — he’s always energetically present in every scene. DiCaprio is still able to command attention easily, a quality which probably makes for a terrible intelligence grunt, but helps immensely with a film as unfocused as this one.
More important, if given significantly less time, is Mark Strong. As Hani, the Jordanian intelligence minister, Strong wears the sharpest suits in the film, but projects such a solid, smart and clever persona that he outshines his co-stars in every scene. Hani is complex; an unforgiving man willing to punish and potentially torture others, but fully bound by his word and eager to work for the good of Jordan. What Craig Robinson is to Zack and Miri Make a Porno (that is, a hero), Strong is to Body of Lies. In a movie where so much is easily forgettable, he’s present for every one of the few indelible moments.
None of those moments are part of the romantic subplot between Ferris and an Iranian nurse living in Jordan, which Scott never fleshes out beyond the point of being a fully expected and obvious device to add tension and incentive to the final act. That act is already beleaguered by a resolution that is so obviously a part of the framework of the ‘terror thriller’ that it actually comes out of left field. As Ferris reaches the end of his quest for Al-Saleem, you’d never think Scott and screenwriter William Monahan would actually take the path they do, because it feels so…standard.
(The conclusion to the movie’s main line of action may or may not be part of the David Ignatius novel upon which the film is based; if so, I hope it works significantly better on the page.)
But that conclusion is wholly representative of the film it wraps up: safe, typical, tidy. For all the messy questions that Body of Lies seeks to address, you’ll emerge not knowing or feeling anything new, except perhaps an incremental weariness for the increasingly standard espionage/terror thriller.
(This was originally rated 4.5, but that was a copy/paste mistake on my part, where I pasted in the review, but not the final, proper score.)