Fully figured 

Body of Lies goes deep on internal terrorism

Though its title and tagline—Body of Lies: “Trust No One. Deceive Everyone.”—won’t win any awards for creative PR, you don’t have to dig too deeply below the surface of this movie to find an intriguing mess of creative cross-pollination.

Director Ridley Scott is a freethinker with serious range, having helmed a diverse assortment of films such as Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator. Box-office bingo champ Russell Crowe, a recent Scott stalwart, co-stars alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, who continues down the road from heartthrob roles to those of heavily accented, conflicted men of international mystery. And the script is the responsibility of William Monahan, who in addition to penning the DiCaprio vehicle and 2006 Oscar winner The Departed also worked with Scott on 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven.

Body of Lies tracks the story of Roger Ferris (DiCaprio), a CIA operative on the hunt for terrorists in the Middle East. Ferris reports directly to Ed Hoffman (Crowe), a soft-spoken pragmatist with convictions of steel. After a long string of futile efforts to track down terrorist mastermind Al-Saleem (very likely modeled on He Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken In The Bush War Room, and played with a delicious lack of irony by Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul), Ferris concocts an elaborate ruse to bring him out of hiding.

Here’s where the analysis of this movie gets tricky, and it’s not because of a Byzantine plot line—compared to the labyrinthine The Departed, Monahan keeps the mental gymnastics to a minimum. And unlike those behind recent spy flicks like, say, the Bourne series, Scott employs a relatively light hand in the departments of steroidally paced editing and special effects.

There are a couple of major plot drivers so obtuse they appear hammered into the script with a two-by-four. The first kicks off the movie, when Hoffman harangues a small group of important-looking people—Congressmen and Senators, presumably—about the unyielding nature of Islamic terrorism and the need for a correspondingly vicious response. The second is a love interest for Ferris, and this driver is notable for both its transparency as a requisite and for Ferris’ surprise when his budding soul mate becomes a pawn in the game of his own creation.

And yet despite all this—and perhaps, in part, because of all this—Body of Lies carries a weight that settles nicely the longer you hold it. The core triumvirate of script-director-actors is so strong that this movie feels as substantial a statement on the post-9/11 world as any to come out of big Hollywood in a while. And it does so by avoiding the easy real-life clichés clamored for by both rabid policymakers who see the war on terror as some sort of Western saloon fight and blowhard pundits of similar ilk who shape television and radio “news.”

For starters, Crowe’s character, as the nearly amoral CIA chief, is pleasingly complex. A poster boy for the “nuke ’em first, ask questions later” crowd, Hoffman later reveals himself as a completely amoral asshole in his business dealings, hanging enemies and allies out to dry with equal abandon. Yet much of his direct contact with Ferris—of which there is plenty—comes via a ubiquitous earpiece that he uses as he carefully bundles his kids off to school (“I love you,” he tells his son, while Ferris curses mightily in his ear) or helps them in toiletry mechanics. It’s an effective juxtaposition, as is Ferris’ continued capitulation to Hoffman even as he hangs on that clothesline, and the dynamics developed through those conversations go a long way in giving both characters a ton of depth.

Crowe plays Hoffman in a nicely understated manner, and the weight he gained for the role (or a fantastic job in makeup and padding) helps soften his edges physically. DiCaprio has never really cut a true action-hero figure, and he doesn’t start here. But where this could have been a miscasting disaster, Scott and Monahan use Leo’s innate naiveté to their favor, imbuing Ferris with a touching bit of idealism. It’s a trait that humanizes Ferris in a distinct way, really, among espionage portrayals, and it effectively forgives the pasted-on quality of the love interest. So does the carefully measured performance of Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani as that love interest (who, in addition to possessing acting chops and breath-stealing beauty, also has a ton of guts—she’ll have to wait for an Iranian judgment on the movie before she’ll know if she can safely return to her native country).

This isn’t a movie for mouth-foaming agents of intolerance, but neither is it a beacon for idyllic pacifists. Body of Lies is a tightly constructed spy tale that has the balls to highlight the many shades of gray that define internationalism in modern times. In an age pocked by easy absolutes, that’s something worth talking about.
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