Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” was better than the preview, a preview that tried very hard to look very cool — and put a great deal of energy into appearing like something it wasn’t. Filled mainly with images of Leonardo DiCaprio (“Blood Diamond”) yelling into the phone and focused on the tension between him and his boss (Russell Crowe, “American Gangster”), it seems the publicity folks wanted to woo viewers with promises of something akin to “The Departed.”
Fortunately, the movie itself proved different than the promised package. Scott offers a good, old-fashioned spy story — made-over with the trappings of current events.
Based on the novel by David Ignatius, “Body of Lies” tells the story of CIA operative Roger Ferrism, who is deployed on the ground in Jordan. Ferris constructs a plan to ensnare the most dangerous car bomber in operation by creating a fake, parallel terrorist network. Throughout the movie, Ferris has to negotiate with both his removed, bureaucratic handler Ed Hoffman (Crowe) and the ruthless but honor-bound Hani Salaam (Mark Strong, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”), head of the Jordanian General Intelligence Department.
In the meantime, he falls in love with a nurse named Aisha — binding him emotionally to the country and creating a source of leverage for his many enemies.
“Body of Lies” resembles neither “Mission Impossible” nor one of the axe-grinders spurred by the ongoing conflict over movies like “Lions for Lambs,” “Stop-Loss” and “Rendition.” Though inextricably wrapped up in current affairs, the film follows the twists and turns of a classic espionage thriller. “How do you expect me to run this operation when you’re running a side operation?” Ferris asks his arrogant boss.
Similarly, Hani Salaam has only one requirement: “Never lie to me.”
Needless to say, the story moves forward as the characters — all, ironically enough, after the same goal — deceive and subvert each other. The tensions existing between the suave Jordanian, the eager operative, and the overconfident has-been drive the plot, rendering the film something of a character study.
Solid, varied performances by Crowe, Strong and DiCaprio — as well as by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who plays Aisha — definitely add to this aspect of the film. It’s truly gratifying to see DiCaprio continue on as a rising star.
But there’s just too much pathos inherent in watching Crowe go from sword-and-sandal god to washed-up fast-food enthusiast. Despite the quality of Crowe’s performance, let us hope this was an exercise in method acting reminiscent of Charlize Theron’s “Monster,” and not a way of life for one of the sexiest, most brilliant celebrities in Hollywood. Although its emphasis on deception and mind-games makes “Body of Lies” a traditional, sometimes predictable, spy story, spies cannot live on craft alone.
As with many Cold War movies, ideology maintains an important role. Scott does a good job of acknowledging the elephant in the room. He creates sympathy for idealists manipulated into martyrdom and for Middle Eastern politicians misunderstood by a distanced West. But he’s not an apologist. Never does the terrorist leader, Al Salim, stop being the bad guy. Indeed, the operatives use his massive ego to draw him out via a straw-man competitor. While Ignatius complicates the classic spy story, adding political nuance and implicating everyone, the tale always provides a villain. Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film “Munich” bears stylistic resemblances to “Body of Lies.” A film about Middle Eastern tensions, in which (as Hoffman puts it) “no one is innocent,” Spielberg’s film may have set up some of the conventions for this new breed of socio-political thriller — one set on the stage of a hot versus cold war.
Scott’s film is intense and gritty — nothing like the glamorized feel of a James Bond or Ethan Hunt story — but it still offers viewers quite a romp, in which action is king, but wile is divine.