Body of Lies (review)

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Matters of Trust

How do you win a war you can’t win? The long answer is part of what Body of Lies explores: the machinations and motivations of the warriors fighting that unwinnable war, how they throw away their seeming advantages that are actually disadvantages (and how tough that can be), how they attempt to get into the heads of their enemies, the hell they put themselves through in the process. But the short answer is probably: You don’t. You don’t win it. You just go on losing it for a long, long time.

When I realized that — that that short answer was hanging in the air over Body of Lies the whole time, unspoken but palpable — is when I realized that the one aspect of the film that had been nagging at me, for feeling too Hollywood in an otherwise not-at-all Hollywood story, was actually just right. It bugged me, at first, this inappropriately big melodramatic moment of Hollywood bullshit coming right at the climax of the film, a cop-out deux ex machina that (it seemed at first glance) makes everything right and good and fine and lets you sigh with relief and go home thinking that everything is okay… But as I turned this seemingly huge misstep in an otherwise perfect film over and over in my head, I saw that it did just the opposite: it purposefully underlined the long-term futility of absolutely everything the movie depicts.

Or maybe I’m just trying to redeem a movie from its one disappointing blunder.

Body of Lies does not mirror this summer’s brilliant Traitor as closely as I feared it would, but thematically they’re very similar indeed. How do you fight an assymetical war when your “inferior” enemy turns your advantages against you? When is superior technology a hindrance rather than a help, and how do you do without those crutches you’ve become so dependent on? Here, in a story adapted from the novel of the same name by Washington Post journalist David Ignatius [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.], that dilemma plays out between senior CIA strategist Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe: 3:10 to Yuma, American Gangster), stationed at CIA HQ in Virginia, and his man on the ground in the Middle East, Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio: Blood Diamond, The Departed). Hoffman, perpertually attached to his phone headset, coordinates Ferris nonstop, whether the older man is dropping his kids off at school or actually watching Ferris via high-resolution satellite cameras even in the middle of the Iraqi desert. Together, they’re trying to hunt down a new player on the scene, an Osama Bin Laden wannabe called Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), who’s orchestrating a series of terrorist bombings of civilians across Europe, with the promise of much more blood to be shed.

Hoffman and Ferris hold each other in disdain, each fully aware that he is being lied to and deceived and misled by the other, and each equally aware that this is all part of their slightly different jobs: Hoffman is a big-picture guy, and Ferris is his pawn, but neither could do their essential work without the dedicated input of the other. And the film is, on the surface, a cat-and-mouse game not so much between the CIA and Al-Saleem — though it is that, too — but between Ferris and Hoffman: the very great pleasures of the film come in seeing Crowe and DiCaprio square off (they’re onscreen together in more than a few scenes; they’re not always just arguing over the phone). I was struck particularly by how, in seeing these two together again for the first time since 1995’s The Quick and the Dead, when DiCaprio was still a teenager, the younger actor seems to have been taking Russell Crowe lessons. Not that he’s aping Crowe, not at all, but that, in a role that a decade ago Crowe himself would have taken on with gusto, DiCaprio feels brawny and muscular and dynamic in the same way that Crowe always has. Crowe, on the other hand, is perfectly at home in the body of a calculating gameplayer like Hoffman, even going so far as to gain 50 pounds to play a man who looks slow and doughy but has a sleek, sharp mind like icy steel.

It’s all good, from the perspective of entertainment: William Monahan’s (The Departed, Kingdom of Heaven) script is clever and subtle and demands that you pay attention, and rewards you for doing so. Ridley Scott’s (American Gangster, Kingdom of Heaven) direction is, as always, so masterful that even a trying-to-be-detached-and-critical observer like me gets so caught up in his movie that I forget I’m not there simply to get lost. (One quick instance: Scott makes Dubai look like something out of science fiction, like we’re building skyscrapers on Mars.)

But beyond the entertainment, there are some very scary think-bombs about how this war is being fought on the Internet, how its battlefields are more likely to be rowhouses in Manchester and marketplaces in Amsterdam than the empty deserts of the Middle East, how torture doesn’t work as an intelligence-gathering method but does work to terrorize… and how terror is theater, a kind of performance on the world stage that both sides are treading. The body of lies isn’t Hoffman lying to Ferris or Ferris lying to his contacts on the ground, perhaps, but all of us being lied to by everyone. That’s the truly terrifying thought that lingers long after the mere movie is done.

Watch Body of Lies online using LOVEFiLM‘s streaming service.

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Fri, Oct 10, 2008 8:31pm

Tiny typo note: I’m pretty sure it’s DiCaprio, not Dicaprio.

Will have to go see this movie….