Body of Lies (2008): Directed by Ridley Scott, Starring DiCaprio

Ridley Scott’s fast moving geopolitical thriller, “Body of Lies,” based on the novel of the same name by David Ignatius, offers an incisive up-to-the-moment, but dramatically uninvolving, view of the war on terrorism, as conducted by the U.S. on the ground and back home, in offices, homes, and suburban playgrounds–mostly via cell phones.

Teaming with Ridley Scott for the first time, after three consecutive films with maestro Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio is in top form as Roger Ferris, the young U.S. Intelligence agent, who’s considered the brightest, boldest and best of the lot.

Joining forces with Agent Ferris is CIA vet Ed Hoffman, played by Russell Crowe, Scott’s regular (and favorite) actor in his fourth film for the director, as the commander behind the scenes, the man on the other side of the cell, who’s in daily (sometimes hourly) communication with Ferris.

Despite the film’s co-star billing, it’s decidedly DiCaprio’s picture. First, because he has a better, more central role, and second, because Crowe renders a secondary, sort of lazy performance. (I can predict that some critics will joke about Crowe phoning in his performance, because it’s literally so; he’s always on the phone).

Scott and author Ignatius, a veteran journalist who has covered the CIA and Middle Eastern affairs for 10 years for The Wall Street Journal before joining The Washington Post, where he is currently a editor and columnist, understand that the new rules of the game of terrorism are not strength of force, or subtle technology, but information and its ultra-rapid dissemination among the right parties. Mind you, the info could be true or false, valid or invalid, but it needs to be packaged and sold as information!

Overall in Scott’s growing canon, “Body of Lies” is a B-picture, a mediocre effort that, despite verisimilitude in visuals, lacks dramatic momentum and prevents audiences from getting involved in a sprawling, overlong, often confusing saga, which also suffers from a bad and unconvincing ending and soft softs, such as a romanic interlude in the middle between DiCaprio and an Arabic nurse (the belongs to another feature).

Scribe William Monahan, who won an Oscar for Scorsese’s “The Departed,” has tried to bring the novel’s gritty urgency and combative character dynamics to a multi-dimensional film with varying success. Often, the plot changes so fast that the characters¬ó-and viewers-¬óare in constant need of adjusting their expectations and perceptions of who’s on the side of whom.

In intent, in its good moments, “Body of Lies” recalls, nd perhaps even pay conscious homage to, the cycle of films about mistrust and paranoia that prevailed in the 1970s, during the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, works such as Sydney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor” or Alan Pakula’s “The Parallax View,” which also served as vehicles for their stars, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, respectively, but were superior to Scott’s on any level.

Replete of twists and turns, the plot of “Body of Lies” centers on Ferris’ audacious plan to lure a terrorist leader named Al-Saleem out of hiding by making it appear that a rival yet fake organization has become as scary, deadly and effectual as Al-Saleem’s own group. However, as expected, Ferris’ deftly constructed smoke and mirrors are cloaked in layers of simultaneous subterfuge perpetrated by his own superior, Ed Hoffman.

A ruthless strategist, Hoffman will stop at nothing to protect the highest goal, national security, even if it means sacrificing his best man. As Ferris’ scheme gains seeming credibility and global momentum, conflicts with his two closest allies threaten to converge with a crisis of conscience that leaves Ferris vulnerable. Will Hoffman betray him, as he has so many others before him

Meanwhile, if the head of Jordanian intelligence finds out that Ferris is running a secret operation to snare the enigmatic Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), Ferris’ life expectancy in Jordan will be measured out in minutes. Ultimately, and that’s the weakest part of the narrative, since it resorts to the cherished value of individualism, the survival of Ferris and the success of his mission may depend on the one man he can trust, himself.

In his mission, Ferris is aided or hampered by Omar Sadiki (Ali Suliman), his unwitting pawn in his ruse to lure terrorist Al-Saleem out of hiding, Oscar Isaac as Bassam (Oscar Isaac), Ferris’ ally on the ground in Samarra, and Garland (Simon McBurney), the one-man war room, who manipulates technology to make Sadiki appear to be a threat to Al-Saleem.

In the murky underworld of today’s high-stakes global espionage, power is measured and defined by the amount of vital information one acquires and controls, or even appears to acquire and control. In the post 9/11 era, national security is a shifty milieu, in which no one could be really trusted, not friends and not even supervisors of your own country, one in which fateful decisions need to be made within seconds.

Since the movie is concerned with issues of information, misinformation and disinformation, rather than weaponry and technology, at least one third of the yarn consists of brief phone conversations between Ferris and Hoffman, who’s often seen around his pool or in his yard, playing with his children, while getting crucial info and making on the spot vital decisions that might affect the lives of Ferris and others.

In this, and other respects, “Body of Lies,” which sounds more like a noir melodrama than a suspense political thriller, offers a cynical yet unfamiliar perspective on how the war of terrorism is conducted, both as a matter of routine and as a highly risky, endless cat-and-mouth chase, which inevitably involves risking the lives of officers and civilians, all over the world.

And I mean all over the world: Following the format of a procedural cop-serial killer movie, “Body of Lies” is also a procedural feature, albeit of a very different kind. If my notes are valid, the globetrotting saga shifts locales over a dozen times in the course of its two-hour running time. But it’s not disorienting, because every scenes is grounded and identified with a title card indicating the specific time and place. The movie captures vividly the two sides or facets of the complex, ever-shifting war, on the death-prone front lines as well on the domestic front.
Motivated by the visceral, down-and-dirty nature of the lives of intelligence operatives, Scott and scribe Monahan avoid taking sides or making any moral judgments, instead emphasizing the pragmatic, not political dimensions of executing espionage in the new millennium, a milieu that’s radically different from the one portrayed by Cold War era writers like John Le Carre.

Narratively and visually, “Body of Lies” tries to be a corrective thriller to “Syriana,” in which there were too many characters and only one relatable (played by George Clooney) as well as to the preposterously-plotted “Traitor,” which defied logic and realism in showing how easy it was for an agent like Don Cheadle to infiltrate the ranks of a secretive organization and then betray his colleagues and peers.

In scale and style, “Body of Lies” belongs to Scott’s war epics, specifically “Black Hawk Down,” which also looked good but suffered from dramatic problems. Technically, like “Black Hawk Down,” it’s supremely crafted picture, with thrilling visuals, courtesy of cinematographer (who also shot Scott’s former film, “American Gangster”), bravura action set-pieces, chases and shoot-outs. You just wish that the narrative and dialogue scenes were more involving.

The duo of Ferris and Hoffman meet t?™te-?†-t?™te only three of four times in the course of the narrative, which is frustrating from an acting point of view, because both DiCaprio and Crow are such gifted and captivating thespians. Cell conversations also present another major problem: As crucial as this device is, it often gets tedious, which may be the point, but not easy to watch.

“Body of Lies” is a more complex and multi-layered, if also more dramatically confusing, spy thriller than the norm, because in goal, it sets out to analyze the various levels of trust and deception that come into play in invading, let alone trying to understand a foreign country with a unfamiliar culture and politics that’s perceived in one word as “the enemy.”


Roger Ferris – Leonardo DiCaprio
Ed Hoffman – Russell Crowe
Hani Salaam – Mark Strong
Aisha – Golshifteh Farahani
Bassam – Oscar Isaac
Al-Saleem – Alon Aboutboul
Garland – Simon McBurney
Skip – Vince Colosimo
Omar Sadiki – Ali Suliman
Nizar – Mehdi Nebbou
Holiday – Michael Gaston
Mustafa Karami – Kais Nashif
Marwan – Jameel Khoury
Aisha’s Sister Cala – Lubna Azabal


A Warner Bros. release of a Scott Free/De Line production.
Produced by Ridley Scott, Donald De Line. Executive producers: Michael Costigan, Charles J.D. Schlissel.
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Screenplay, William Monahan, based on the novel by David Ignatius.

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