Body Of Lies


Reviewed by: Richard Mellor

Body Of Lies
"Body Of Lies is riveting, never drawing breath until its uneasy finale."

Given that it's about such a very current, symbolic and controversial topic, Ridley Scott's cinematic focus on the War On Terror is most notable for its lack of politics. There's no real criticism of American foreign policy here, no seditious messages about the Middle Eastern states involved or anti-Islamic sentiment, and only a very brief polemic against al-Qaeda and terrorists. Instead, taking his cue from a philosophical WH Auden line about the inevitability of violence, Scott simply concentrates on making a searing, bloody thriller, one that enthralls and appals in equally meaty quantities.

A necessarily simplified version of David Ignatius' book, Body Of Lies documents the CIA's efforts in Middle East counter-terrorism through two men: renowned strategist Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) and his best man in the field: deep cover agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio). They are chalk and cheese: while the goodly, hands-on Ferris laments the war's human cost and respectfully speaks fluent Arabic, Hoffman dismissively opines "nobody likes the Middle East" and sacrifices innocent life for information without compunction. Ferris fears, justifiably, that he'll be next.

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Secrecy and duplicity dominate Body Of Lies. With traitors in every camp and traps behind most doorways, Ferris faces daily dilemmas over who to believe; any mistake will likely prove fatal. Travelling to Amman in seach of an elusive al-Qaeda operative, he agrees never to lie to Hani Salam (Mark Strong), Jordan's powerful head of security, in exchange for help. Yet he promptly does, as Hoffman and he concoct a covert plan to bring their target into the open. With each subsequent advance towards the terrorists, Ferris risks not only Hani's wrath, but capture by his merciless foes.

Between baleful news clips of fictional bombings in Europe - needlessly trite reminders of the BIGGER PICTURE, and why the counter-terrorism is so vital - Body Of Lies fairly rattles along. Taut silences and haunting Arabic music hasten botched stakeouts, fatal explosions and gun fights at remote desert terror cells. Ferris berates Hoffman down the phone one moment, pleads with Hani the next and grills new informants soon after. He even finds time to tangle with a pair of rabid dogs, and fall for local nurse Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani) during his subsequent hospital visit.

Does the film needs this romance? From the first glance you know this is as much plot device leading Ferris to trouble, and that Aisha's very much the pretty girl caught up in a big bad world. But with no touching of unmarried women permitted and rumbling discontent at their friendship, DiCaprio and Farahani's furtive bond neatly reminds of the cultural divide. Somehow fusing softness with grit in believable fashion as the skilful agent, DiCaprio deserves most credit for speaking the lingo. Bertrand Russell once said life was too short for learning Arabic, but Leo did it inside a few months.

That overshadows Crowe's achievement of putting on 50lbs to play his portly tactician. Difficult to like, his crass and pompous Hoffman multitasks like no other: witness him ruthlessly instructing his agents to kill on a wireless phone while watching his daughter play football, then stepping out of the shadows in Leo's apartment a few hours later. His dialogue is horribly clunky at times - "buddy" this, "pussy" that - but the man's sure funny. In a film where humour is very welcome, he laconically tells Ferris, "a couple bottles more of this (Jordanian wine) and we'll be speaking Babylonian".

The best performance is Strong's, though - he's sleek and seductive as Hani, but also deeply scary: a man that, though clearly decent, Ferris really ought not cross. To prove the point, Hani forces the American to observe an unpleasant torture scene; another, much more sickening example later follows. Scott seems intent on hammering home the peril men like Ferris face in macabre fashion. Seeing the agent pick his puckered arm for the bone shards of a recently fumigated colleague isn't an image easily forgotten.

Despite such grotesque moments, Body Of Lies is riveting, never drawing breath until its uneasy finale, and as such curiously enjoyable. Yet it seems somehow wrong to relish entertainment based upon such a sober real-life subject. Should Scott have said 'sod the box office', and made a dull, tragic paean to the war on terror instead? Or does his popcorn picture bestow ample authenticity (note the Predator tracking system and other such hi-techery) and obeisance to merit its doubtless high earnings? Like most elements of this war on terror, there are no easy answers.

Tired and accursed by his part in an apparently neverending campaign, Ferris bitterly accuses the distant Hoffman of having never having experienced the war on terror firsthand. With no Pentagon, very little Langley and a whole lot of the Middle East (or in fact Morocco, where the film shot), it's not a criticism that could ever be levelled at Body Of Lies.

Reviewed on: 21 Nov 2008
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Counter-terrorist thriller about a CIA operative in the Middle East and his US-based 'handler'.
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Read more Body Of Lies reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ****
Stephen Carty **

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: William Monahan, based on the novel by David Ignatius

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani, Oscar Isaac, Ali Suliman

Year: 2008

Runtime: 128 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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