Body of Lies
Did Leo get the Jay Leno chin implant?

Theatrical Release Date: 10/10/2008
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani, Oscar Issac, Vince Colosimo

With the Cold War long gone and already a steady stream of WWII films every year, Hollywood’s latest strategy is to flood the marketplace with counter-terrorism stories and depictions of the brutality on both sides when it comes to tactical strikes and prisoner interrogations. Whether it’s “Rendition”, “The Kingdom“, “Traitor” or any of their ilk, being reminded of real life doesn’t just happen on the news anymore.

It’s become so ubiquitous that the comedic market has taken a stab at it with “Harold and Kumar go to Guantanamo Bay“, “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” and “American Dreamz” – and the indie scene is putting a microscope on the problem with films like “The Visitor“.

Now, with “Body of Lies”, director Ridley Scott has thrown his hat into the ring as well. Based on a novel written by David Ignatius (penned for the screen by William Monahan), the film follows a young counter-terrorism agent for the CIA (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he tries to track down a terrorist leader (Alon Aboutbul) responsible for numerous bombings across Europe.

Helping/hindering DiCaprio along the way are his CIA boss (Russell Crowe) and the head of Jordanian Intelligence (Mark Strong). Their tangled web of strategy and deceit leads them on a mildly convoluted journey to apprehend those responsible for the bombings. Of course, what’s a Hollywood film without a love story so throw in a pretty Iranian Nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) and the players are all set.

One thing I want to get out of the way as quick as possible is my general dislike of DiCaprio. Anyone who’s ever talked to me about the subject or read a few of the reviews knows I’d prefer to eat bad shellfish than run out to see what Leo’s up to these days. However, I will admit that lately he has done a much better job of choosing roles with substance behind them (“Titanic” Jack Dawson aside) and I may be turning a corner here.

In this film, he must find a balance within himself to rectify all of the morally ambiguous actions performed over the course of his service to the CIA. While capable in a fight, it’s his tactical skills that have allowed for such a quick rise through the Agency’s ranks. I don’t quite see a high-level CIA operative taking on station chief duties and running around in the field at the same time but suspension of disbelief is necessary in most films.

I also have a few issues with the romantic subplot because the same story angle could have been used without giving audiences a glimpse of DiCaprio’s wooing power. Not having read the novel, I don’t know if this element was added to the screenplay to satisfy another demographic checkbox but it feels that way. I can imagine a meeting where the producers said, “Well, it’s gritty and in your face … but could you throw in a pretty girl?” I can’t say I’m surprised by this but it was annoying enough for me to mention.

Russell Crowe does an adequate job here, tagging along on another Ridley Scott venture. As a CIA bigwig, Crowe’s sole concern is getting results now and virtually ignoring the possible longterm consequences. While a good metaphor for recent (and not so recent) American foreign policy, it would have been nice to see more shades of grey in the character. To help solidify and demonize his character, there are numerous (probably too many) scenes of him on the phone discussing serious and deadly operations all while half-heartedly attending to his duties as a husband and father. However, it all seemed like Crowe was barely awake for his scenes and while that may have been a conscious decision, it left me feeling like the character wasn’t fully developed.

Mark Strong did a good job as the head of Jordanian Intelligence. As Beth Accomando of the KPBS Movie Blog pointed out, he’s essentially the Middle-Eastern Andy Garcia and there was an “Ocean’s Thirteen” quality to the role. Don’t take that too negatively though, he was a good foil for Crowe’s holier than thou take on American foreign policy. Still, although extremely smart and manipulative, there were many character quirks to him that probably stem from the novel – which while memorable and often good comic relief, tread a fine line between eccentric and belittling.

An aspect of the film that people should know about beforehand is that there are a few torture scenes. It’s no “Passion of the Christ” but the Geneva Convention isn’t recognized often in the film. While only certain quick shots are overly graphic, Scott did a good job of providing tension throughout the scenes that some people might find uncomfortable (though no more so than much of the other fare dealing with this subject).

There is also an examination of the use of high tech wizardry to capture low tech enemies who have realized that staying off the electronic grid renders them virtually invisible to the superpowers they are plotting against. It felt a little like Ridley was borrowing from his brother Tony’s “Enemy of the State” but as a fan of technology, it was fun and helped to keep the action moving at a faster pace.

Obviously, the central theme of the film is the on-going struggle of extremists hellbent on destroying the Western world’s way of life – as a retaliation to both the perceived and actual actions perpetrated upon them. One shouldn’t expect a Hollywood film to come up with any substantial answers to the issues involved and the filmmakers attempted to cast a shade of gray over the entire matter (though not on the terrorist because that just wouldn’t play with audiences and it’s still all about making money).

I appreciate not making everything so black and white but it really still is a tale of a great white hope riding in to save the day (how many expressions did I just mash together?); though I suppose that’s unavoidable once you’ve cast Leonardo DiCaprio. It was nice to see Mark Strong’s character portrayed as someone with intelligence that rivals and even exceeds that of his CIA counterparts but the credit due for his efforts still feels a little hollow.

While I wouldn’t place this on a pedestal, I appreciate when difficult subject material is presented in such a way as to provide an opportunity for people to discuss the ramifications of real life events. “Body of Lies” isn’t perfect and could have used a little trimming to reduce the meandering feeling it evokes but if you are interested in the issues on display, I’d recommend checking this out and will give the film a solid 3 out of 5.

Only time will tell if the goodwill Leo has garnered from me with “Blood Diamond” and now “Body of Lies” will continue to earn a respite from my “DiCraprio” moniker. Like similar issues I have with Ben Affleck that have been lowered to a simmer thanks to “Gone Baby Gone“, all it takes for either of them to regain their status on my bad side is another “Gigli” or “Titanic” … and that would just be cruel and unusual punishment for us all.