Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong
Director: Ridley Scott
Runtime: 128 min.
Genre: Thriller, Action
Allow me to break the bubble of expectation, if any. Body of Lies might be serious in the way it approaches its subject matter, but that seriousness would only be skin deep. A kind of pretension, and an uneasy one at that. I say uneasy because this film intends to blend its standard issue Hollywood thrills and frills with a treatment that is begging for intellectual involvement and consideration. It works at one or two occasions, I admit, but Mr. Scott’s opinion of the terrorism and the moral quandaries the fight against it presents is as profound and insightful as mine, which to say isn’t much. There isn’t one novel observation or any theory suggested apart from the same old. Either that, or as I suspect, Mr. Scott is essentially functioning as an illustrator, which is to say he is putting a rather underwritten/overwritten (any which way you look at it) William Monahan script onto the screen with his usual add-ons of style and sophistication. And that there is the uneasy, and dare I say, the ugly death ring of the grace that accompanies Body of Lies, that for most of its part looks and feels nothing like the tense, grim, harsh, cruel and brutal reality it intends to depict. It is too polished, and not even the graphic image of two fingers hammered down to pulp could wipe it.
Oh, but there’s one pertinent observation and a statement. That would be Roger Ferris’ (DiCaprio) multi-linguistic skills. Ferris is the eye and the ears of the CIA in the Middle East, and it wouldn’t be too audacious of me if I looked upon him as another amalgamation of the two JBs – James Bond and Jason Bourne. When Charlie Wilson expresses his surprise to Gust Avrakotos that how could a guy like him get into the agency, it seems the impression he was referring to was that of Ferris. The one difference between Ferris here, and say a Bourne (or a John Rambo) is that the latter’s films would make a lot of noise with regards to one-man-army capabilities. But not here. And let that not fool you. Because Ferris here, who sports a rather curious beard, which I believe is his primary weapon of disguise, does unbelievably well in the stunt department too, and when not adapting with the local language, he is either dodging bullets, or getting bitten by diseased dogs, or escaping mostly unscathed when a stone hut explodes and the rubble falls around him, or setting up a fake terrorist organization complete with fake funds and fake claims, or trying to fall in love with a local beauty. Needless to say, he does all on his own. He is the man, despite his accents flickering and fluctuating like that street light you used to throw stones at (Remember Blood Diamond, and DiCaprio’s on and off Afrikaans?). And that is not the point. The point to be garnered from here is that before 9/11, and especially during the Clinton administration, there wasn’t a single Middle East expert of the CIA working in the streets. Not even a guy who could muster the local language, let alone maintaining and nurturing an asset who could be the eyes and ears behind the walls. This was one of the many grounds upon which Robert Baer, a former employee and a field agent of the CIA, lambasted his organization and the bureaucracy behind it in See No Evil, upon which Syriana is based, the one of the two or three good films to come out on the subject to date.
What is Ferris’, and the CIA’s agenda? To nab Al Saleem, the leader of an offshoot of Al Qaeda. Al Saleem’s organization has disappeared off the technological grid, that is to say they have altogether stopped using modern means of communication. Passing information hand to hand, and old school methods of the kind, is how they are causing blasts in Manchester and Amsterdam. I know, if the CIA would just rely less on technology and Ferris and instead increase its force on ground they could suck in a lot more information. I’m not sure that observation is a conscious statement by the film, or if it is just good old fashioned serendipity. Never mind. The point is we ought to know better, and we ought to learn despite a film having no idea what to preach. Speaking of which, it is also quite true that wiping the head of a terrorist organization wouldn’t necessarily clean the mess. But that would be the attitude of Ed Hoffman (Crowe), CIA’s Head of Division for the Middle East. Crowe plays him quite brilliantly as a bully and a big brother who wouldn’t take no for an answer and wouldn’t necessarily encourage discussion. That is to say he sits behind a desk, or in front of a screen privy to real time live action, and dispenses orders to Ferris on a phone. And his understanding of the crisis is to kill ‘em all and leave it to God to sort ‘em out. As in, nobody is innocent in this shit. As in, Middle East is a terrible place. As in, he is supposed to represent the boorish nature of the United States. If you are mistaking Hoffman for a person, and wondering about his character, I believe you might be doing him and the film a bit of disservice. There is a certain degree arrogance to his relentlessness not to be interpreted as the bad guys, but someone who is self-righteous and devoutly so. The ends justify the means. Morality is for weak people. If you watch the film and if you ask yourself if Hoffman sleeps soundly now after pushing the red button on so many people, and will sleep soundly twenty years hence, I believe you are asking the wrong question. Because you might be judging him, and Ridley Scott and William Monahan (screenwriter, The Departed, Kingdom of Heaven) are doing much the same. In a way Hoffman is what the film, and the opening quote by W.H. Auden that says – Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return – isn’t necessarily ominous in tone but a matter of truth. That is to say, it is an all out war, and these are the men who protect us, and often the protectors aren’t supposed to be the same as the ones who they protect.
So, there’s Roger Ferris and there’s Ed Hoffman, and there might be a case made that both represent what the United States Intelligence community ought to be in particular, and what they are respectively. As is the case, this is a nice and ripe scenario for a clash and a spark between the man on the ground and the man behind the desk. As we find it in Body of Lies, not necessarily, and this is the point where the film shows a lot of resource (I believe the credit ought to be given to David Ignatius upon whose novel the film is based), and this is the single biggest point that disappointed me and broke completely the film for me.
Let me explain how that happened, and I’ll be treading most carefully because this film is all plot and no narration, and I wouldn’t want to thread it for you here either.
William Monahan’s script offers its services primarily to the actions, the breakneck developments (which we don’t realize but only learn as facts, as if read out from a page) and the plot, which means to say that Mr. Ferris and Mr. Hoffman have already been developed even before they set foot inside the film. Not exactly a problem, and this could often be used as a strength. But not here. What the script ought to focus on is how the central characters react, on what decisions they make so that a necessary insight is provided. What the script does instead is throw one paradox after another, with these two folks only helping in the plot reaching its destination. For instance, the film bases its eventual realization upon Mr. Ferris being greatly disillusioned with the way CIA works. But I never got around to understand why he feels that way, because he has been working hand in hand with the guys this entire time. But I wasn’t convinced because he doesn’t flinch from killing a potential asset, and he doesn’t bat an eyelid when framing an innocent family man as the leading architect of a major terrorist faction of the Al Qaeda. Yet, the climax is a set piece, a supremely improbable and clichéd one, which is designed around an emotion that Mr. Ferris only passably exhibits during the entire run of the film – love and care. There’s a lady with whom he falls in love, though it for sure couldn’t possibly be more than an infatuation. This is a nurse, and let me tell you she has a twinkle in the eye you would want to fall on your knees for, but not necessarily walk into the middle of the desert ready to be picked up for slaughter by the leading terrorist of the world. Especially if you’re an infidel.
And that there is the problem. Monahan’s script is convenient, but never convincing. He used a female character just the same way to resolve the plot in The Departed (Vera Farmiga), and he does the same here. I wonder what to make of it. Even if we consider the larger picture, the film isn’t a model of clarity as we are only given information about what happens, but now how that what happens. We are essentially taken on a ride from one city to another city to another city coursing though one development to the next to the next. We are never clear why vital information is often withheld from Mr. Ferris? Because for all I could see, Ferris and Hoffmann hit off each other quite well. I think I might know why. Because this is an underwritten script with an overwritten plot that fixes too much on development and less on character. In The Departed deceit and lies and treachery and backstabbing felt like the necessities borne out of the characters, here it feels like the mechanics of a plot. Having Mr. Hoffman essentially as a voice on the phone is nothing more than a convenient device for the script to throw developments at us which are necessary for the film to keep moving. Our POV is essentially Mr. Ferris, but the film never realizes or uses that state to any significant effect. Ridley Scott, in his turn, does nothing apart from lending it a gloss, and the film as a result loses its potency. It feels inert, as if being read of a newspaper, and extremely mechanical. A case could be certainly made as to why Monahan himself didn’t make the film.
I wonder what the film is about. Is it a theory about the fight between forces one of whom is technologically driven and other ideologically driven? I’m not so sure, and even though that is a plot point and an objective, the film never dwells into the details save the superficial ones. We’re almost never provided with an insight about how the terrorist outfit works, and that is pretty obvious because it is tough. Body of Lies could have been grandly enjoyable, and it still is to an extent. It is a shallow film that deserves a shallow audience that munches its popcorn. And if you happen to miss one or two plot points, don’t feel bad because nothing matters. When it all ends, you’ll know caring wasn’t just worth it.