Status: In theaters (opened 10/10/08)
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Written By: William Monahan
Cinematographer: Alexander Witt
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani
The international situation, as Tom Robbins wrote, is desperate, as always. The U.S. employs agents working covertly throughout the Middle East, seeking to infiltrate terrorist organizations to learn about their plans and the whereabouts of their leaders. One such agent is Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), who we join in Iraq and follow to Jordan, where he will work with Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), the head of Jordanian intelligence, to track down the terrorist Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul). Early on we learn that Ferris reports to a handler back in the U.S. named Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), and the two have several philosophical differences, not the least of which is Hoffman’s belief that informants are expendable if they get his agent closer to the ultimate target. This trio of characters forms a triangle of beliefs and methods, pulling equally in three directions that are ostensibly towards the same end.
Both DiCaprio and Crowe are right in their respective wheelhouses here, and Strong is a nice complement. Roger Ferris’s love interest, Aisha, is also portrayed quite capably by the lovely Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. The quality of the actors is matched by an overall polished production, with excellent camera work and editing that conveys the severity of the situations Ferris finds himself in without resorting to such annoyances as the “shaky cam” technique we’ve seen a lot of in recent years, or other such gimmicks. Ridley Scott knows what he’s doing, and every aspect of his film feels refined and well-executed, with the one exception being the script by Oscar-winner (for his remarkable screenplay for The Departed) William Monahan, who adapted the book by David Ignatius. There are many things he’s done well here, starting with the dialogue that consistently manages to temper the potential for getting too cheesy without sacrificing dramatic effect. He allows his characters to make points about our world and the aforementioned international situation—which, as usual, is desperate—without having to recite speeches like they’re in a junior high debate class.
The moderate shortcoming of this story, though, is in the plausibility category. The relationships Ferris forms with every other character he encounters are for the most part a bit hard to buy, from the doctor who he woos while receiving a shot, to the hard-ass intelligence director who he convinces to give him one chance too many, to the low-level terrorist operatives who play into his plans as if they were pieces on his chessboard. Ferris, in general, is able to manipulate entire organizations single-handedly, to the point where it’s almost hard to imagine that terrorists are still able to thrive in the region with him on the job. Some of the tools he employs (other than his wit and powers of deception) are a stretch, as well. I don’t know if the CIA really has satellite or spy plane technology as good as what’s depicted here or not—and I know cell phones don’t work nearly this well—but I’m willing to accept it in the world of the movie to a point; overusing such devices, though, grows somewhat old eventually, and Body of Lies allows itself to fall into that trap.
The “ripped from today’s headlines” story is intriguing and interesting, though, and when told with such adeptness as is on display here, it’s easy to overlook some minor shortcomings and allow yourself to get wrapped up in the espionage and suspense. Just don’t assume that it’s all that realistic, despite being depicted as such, and it’s an enjoyable, timely thriller. Until the wholly implausible ending, that is.