"It's like The Departed with Arabs instead of the Irish mob!" That might sound simplistic, but it's a shockingly apt way to describe Body of Lies, Ridley Scott's moderately successful journey into the labyrinthine world of intelligence operations in the Middle East. Once again, Leonardo DiCaprio plays the poor, sure-to-be-tortured soul heading into a world of pain and death and, once again, a shocking portion of the dialogue in William Monahan's script (he also wrote The Departed) takes place over mouth pieces, cell phones, or other modern devices. One of the more startling elements of Body of Lies is watching the impact of technology on a conflict in a region of the world that barely has running water. It's clearly one of the things that fascinated director Ridley Scott about David Ignatius' book - the way computers, surveillance, and mobile technology is changing not just the face of communication, but also the face of war. The only problem with that is that it's a subject that plays into some of Scott's recent weaknesses as a director - a loss of passion in favor of an overly calculated style. It’s harder to get pumped for a cell phone conversation that most modern directors seem to think.
Like American Gangster, Body of Lies looks amazing. You can't really fault Scott or his team on any single shot. But there's a grit missing. To use CIA speak, the variables are gone. Everything feels overly calculated. In an era when FAR too many filmmakers are lazily calling action and cut with no visual aesthetic at all, it seems somewhat harsh to rip on a man for being too much of a perfectionist, but I'd love to see Scott get sloppy again. Find the anarchy in a part of the world that has so recently been defined by nothing but. Body of Lies is an expertly made, well-acted movie, and that makes it worth seeing, but it's not what it could have been.
DiCaprio plays CIA operative Roger Ferris, a young man stationed in the Middle East with not an ounce of fear. Ferris is one of those guys who practically lives his whole life undercover, always trying to find the safe house or the chatter about the location of a prime target. One such target lifts his head out of the sand after a series of attacks around Europe, and Ferris thinks he finally has a line on how to get to him. There's a reported safe house in Amman, Jordan, and Ferris heads there, where he requires the help of a local politician named Hani (Mark Strong) and even falls for a girl named Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani). Roger is in constant contact with CIA Headquarters in Langley, specifically with Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), a man who plays the ultimate form of intelligence hardball, refusing to protect informants and even putting his own men in jeopardy. Monahan's script has a lot more in common with The Departed than you might think. This excellent writer loves moving people around like chess pieces, making it unclear to the audience exactly who's in charge, who’s on the side of good, and who will come out alive in the end.
DiCaprio has developed into a nearly flawless actor over the years and Crowe is always strong, but I never felt like I really knew Ferris or Hoffman. Maybe these people are so deep into what they do that they're impossible TO know. There's a reason that Scott and Monahan always film Hoffman deep in world-changing conversation while he's doing mundane things like unloading his kids from the car. You get the impression that he sleeps with his cell phone earpiece in place. But that’s the extent of the character development. And Ferris is a bit too much of a plot device for Leo to really bite into the role. When Aisha, the love interest, is introduced, it softens his character a bit until you realize that the only female role in the flick is surely there for a final act twist. The only real revelation on an acting level is Mark Strong (Stardust, Syriana). His Hani is a complex man, unsure of his own loyalties but positive that those who betray or lie to him will be punished. The movie comes to life the most when Strong is on screen. The list of people who can steal a movie from either Crowe or DiCaprio is pretty short, much less both of them in the same movie, so Strong should feel proud of such an accomplishment.
In the end, Body of Lies is a brutal, dark movie that I always liked but felt like it was too distant to love. Even the action feels like an exercise in filmmaking instead of something the audience has a chance of feeling on a visceral, emotional, or intellectual level. To use one of the oldest critical phrases in the book - I always felt like I was watching a movie. A very, very well-made movie, but a movie nonetheless.
Rating: THREE BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: October 10th, 2008
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, and Golshifteh Farahani
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: William Monahan