Halfway through the last decade Ridley Scott started making movies like crazy. He was making a movie every year. 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven was an epic swords-and-sandal drama, 2006’s A Good Year was a well-intentioned failure, 2007’s American Gangster was an urban period thriller and last in this binge is Body of Lies, Scott’s comment on the war in the Middle East, a thriller that is as intricate as it is foolish.
At the center of Body of Lies is Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), a C.I.A. operative who works in the Middle East. He knows the people, speaks the language and gets results, but he seems to have doubts. He has lived with these people for so long he has begun to see them as more than just subjects on his missions. He even strikes up a relationship with a local beauty. This is all to the dismay of his handler back home in Virginia, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who wants to get results no matter what happens. Ferris is on the trail of a terrorist, who plans to do God knows what to the Western devils, and he gets help from a local businessman called Hani (mark Strong).
We are privy to every little detail that goes into setting up a mission like this, from inserting people in enemy organizations, creating a faux terrorist organization to lure the real terrorists out of their hiding spots and utilizing modern techniques combined with old-fashioned spying. Roger Ebert called it James Bond meets John Le Carre and I heartily agree with him. The things Ferris has to endure are way more than a human should be able to endure. He is tortured, he is bitten by dogs, he escapes explosions and so on and so on. And all the while keeping his cool about a lot of it. It is just a lot to take in and keep your suspension of disbelief under control.
While William Monahan’s screenplay, based on a book from David Ignatius, is very detailed and intricate with more twists and turns than a Formula 1 race track. As with Kingdom of Heaven, Monahan shows great respect for the Islamic faith and the way of life over there. He isn’t too keen on outside people coming in to tell people how to live their lives, which is exactly what the Americans in Body of Lies are doing. Meddling in local affairs is high on the agenda here and the shift in DiCaprio’s character is a sign that even Americans are maybe a little bit sick of all the meddling that is done in these countries. It is one thing to get rid of a dictator, it is another thing to dictate to people how they should live. But that’s another discussion.
Monahan writes all these nuances in his screenplay and Scott ran with it. The various parts are exciting: the intrigue, the action, the redemption, the deception and the love story. These would all be great subjects in their own right, but Scott never really manages to glue it all together. Body of Lies gets to where it is going at its own time and never really gets exciting. The acting is at a level you expect from a cast like this, while never being infused with enough spirit to keep you glued to the screen. That is a shame, because this is a story that needs to be told. There is another side to a war that often isn’t told at home by the ‘invading’ party in the conflict. Body of Lies had the opportunity to show people who the people they are trying to ‘educate’ really don’t want to be taught anything and just want to be left alone. There is a message here, if only it were told in a more compelling way.