by HELEN GEIB
Body of Lies is a skillfully executed spy thriller with a contemporary Middle Eastern setting. Though the script occasionally threatens to mire the story in punditry, Ridley Scott’s direction and powerhouse performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe propel the film over the plot holes and talking points. So long as it was running, it seemed like a better movie than it is.
DiCaprio plays the lead role of Roger Ferris, a high-level CIA field operative. Stationed in Baghdad when the film opens, he is soon transferred to Amman, Jordan. Crowe plays Ed Hoffmann, Ferris’s Langley-based superior. The principal supporting character is Hani (Mark Strong), head of the Jordanian secret service. The pleasurably complicated plot involves the three men in an effort – sometimes co-operative, sometimes antagonistic – to identify, locate, and apprehend a top al-Qaeda leader.
The real business of the film is to compare and contrast competing philosophies of intelligence gathering in the age of terrorism in the name of Allah. The script by William Monahan from a novel by David Ignatius is sincere in its attitude and schematic in its representation of the available options. Hoffmann stands in for Western reliance on technology, defined by the film as wiretapping, manipulation of electronic information, spy satellites, and remote deployment of high-tech weaponry. Hani stands in for local knowledge and the use of “human collateral,” principally defined as informants and undercover agents. Ferris is the battleground over which the perceived dichotomy plays out and the vehicle for the film to illustrate its conclusion in favor of the latter approach.
Ferris is shown as predisposed to the “right” approach: fluent in Arabic and familiar with local customs, he is introduced personally interviewing a potential informant in the field, advocates close surveillance of suspects by field agents, and solicits the cooperation of local intelligence agencies. However, he is embedded in CIA culture, and the principal narrative arc has him run a high-tech smoke and mirrors operation that has tragic consequences and ultimately imperils his own life. Ultimately, where Hoffman’s technology fails to safeguard Ferris’s life against al-Qaeda’s proficient ruthlessness, Hani’s (also ruthlessly orchestrated) ground operation succeeds.
A serious treatment of such an important issue in a major Hollywood film is welcome. Unfortunately, the film’s principal weakness is that it undercuts the persuasiveness of its argument with lazy scripting, sacrificing plausibility for narrative convenience. There are two particularly ludicrous plot points, both necessary to set up the climax, that stood out even though I was engrossed in the film, and some more minor points that appear in hindsight. These join a few scenes where the action briefly grinds to a halt for the time it takes a character to make a political speech. Tighter plotting and excising the speechifying would have brought dramatic rewards as well as greater persuasive power.
There are significant compensations. DiCaprio and Crowe sell the material, carrying much of the film in one-on-one conversations – sometimes held face to face, more often in phone conversations while on opposite sides of the world. Scott’s direction creates energy and intensity. The evocation of place, especially of Amman, is credible and interesting. Though I’ve focused so far on the script’s failings, it also has considerable strengths. Much of the plot works, and the characterizations, if unsubtle, are vivid.