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Body of Lies Captures Shifting Alliances of a Long War

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Feb 23, 2009
<i>Body of Lies</i> Captures Shifting Alliances of a Long War

DVD Release Date:  February 17, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  October 10, 2008
Rating:  R (for strong violence including some torture, and for language throughout)
Genre:  Action, Drama, Thriller
Run Time:  128 min.
Director:  Ridley Scott
Actors:  Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani, Alon Abutbul, Ali Suliman, Kais Nashif

Ridley Scott has directed numerous classic films—Gladiator, Alien, Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down—but his cinematic track record is far from spotless. Scott can deliver bloated misfires as easily as he can a powerhouse Oscar contender. Remember Legend with Tom Cruise, or recent duds like A Good Year?

His career as a director has spanned decades, but unlike many of his colleagues, who work less frequently as they age, Scott’s output has ticked up in his twilight years. His new film, Body of Lies, is his fourth in four years, and his eighth since the turn of the century.

Last year’s Scott-helmed American Gangster generated heavy awards buzz upon its release, but the buzz faded, leaving the film unrecognized in most of the major Oscar categories. Could it be that the 70-year-old director is still looking for the right project to win him an elusive Best Director statue? (Scott was nominated in that category the year Gladiator won Best Picture, but watched as the directing Oscar went to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic.)

Now comes Body of Lies starring Oscar winner Russell Crowe and multiple Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio in a CIA drama about the United States’ involvement in the Middle East. It is not up to Scott’s best work, but the performances—especially from DiCaprio—are strong, and the result is a film that seriously examines U.S. foreign policy while still managing to entertain. It’s not heavy-handed; its point about the extent and purpose of U.S. power provokes consideration rather than the alienation that has greeted so many of the Iraq War-themed movies in the past few years.

Adapted by William Monahan (The Departed) from a novel by David Ignatius, Body of Lies begins with a promise by Al-Saleem, a terrorist leader, to carry out a campaign of bloodshed in the West. We then hear the two CIA operatives, Ed Hoffman (Crowe) and Roger Ferris (DiCaprio), give voice to differing views about the U.S. pursuit of terrorists. “A long war will only make your enemy grow stronger,” says Ferris, who moves from one Middle East country to the next, cultivating sources to infiltrate the terrorist cell behind the campaign. Back in the United States, Hoffman tells others that the Islamic fighters “do not want to negotiate. They want the universal caliphate established.” He warns that “our world as we know it is a lot easier to put to an end than you think.”

Hoffman is a family man who’s never disconnected from his work. He makes momentous decisions while watching his daughter’s soccer game or helping his young son use the potty. The closest relationships for Ferris, who is finalizing a divorce from his wife, are those with the sources he develops in the Middle East—the very same people Hoffman sees as little more than temporarily useful, to be disposed of once they’ve divulged information. (“You milked him, and he was dry,” he coldly tells Ferris about one of the contacts who has risked his life to provide intelligence.)

Ferris grows increasingly exasperated by Hoffman, who watches Ferris’ every move on a big board in the CIA’s Virginia headquarters, thanks to a satellite that tracks the movement of Ferris and his contacts in the region. (After Eagle EyeThe Dark Knight and the Bourne trilogy, the overriding message of today’s action film seems to be that anyone can be watched anywhere, at any time, thanks to a combination of technology and aggressive—sometimes too aggressive—intelligence efforts.) When Hoffman lies to crucial sources, such as Jordanian intelligence expert Hani Salaam (Mark Strong, who steals the movie from his better known co-stars), it’s up to Ferris to pick up the pieces.

The distance between Hoffman’s cool-headed but questionable tactics and Ferris’ fierce commitment to the men who provide information to him makes Body of Lies more interesting than its narrative sometimes deserves. Do we really need to see extended sequences of cyber-experts hacking their way into someone’s online accounts so they can use the information for their own purposes? Body of Lies is slowed more than once by the filmmakers’ mistaken notion that watching computer wizards enter quick keystrokes makes for invigorating cinema. Also, a romance between Ferris and an Iranian nurse feels tacked on, even though it doesn’t terribly detract from the movie.

Those few story elements hurt this otherwise well-paced, well-performed film. The pairing of DiCaprio and Crowe has some fine moments, although Crowe’s Southern accent isn’t fully convincing and the film’s sympathies clearly lie with DiCaprio’s desperate field agent—a much more complex role. Body of Lies would have been a better film had it given each man’s view equal credence, but even those who identify with some of Hoffman’s views will find that they can go only so far in defending him. Still, Ferris’ views are not completely opposed to Hoffman’s. When challenged about the United States’ war effort in Iraq, Ferris couches his forceful response in a way that defends U.S. interests, and his certainty appears not to be a put on.

The Bible tells us that “a truthful witness does not deceive, but a false witness pours out lies” (Proverbs 14:5), yet it assures us in Psalms 12:7-8 that the Lord “will keep us safe and protect us from such people forever.” The current War on Terror has left many people feeling lied to, but the goal of our Jihadist enemies has been well documented. How do we fight an ideology?

We’re in a murky war, and this murky movie does a fine job of capturing the tensions and shifting alliances that characterize that ongoing conflict.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; persistent foul language.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Smoking and drinking.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Crude reference to female anatomy.
  • Violence/Disturbing Imagery:  Morbid jokes about those who were beheaded on videotape; lots of gunfire and killing; a man wired with a bomb is shot, but detonates the bomb anyway; helicopters fire missiles; close up of bone fragments being removed from a wounded man; man and dogs are stabbed; rabies vaccination injections are shown; a building is bombed; fingers are smashed by a hammer; a man is spit on and his head is slammed into a table.
  • MarriageOne character is finalizing a divorce.
  • Religion:  Muslim religion is not examined in depth, although there is a reference to “takfir methodology,” which permits things forbidden by Islam in order to deceive others; an analogy made about “which side of the cross you’re on—you’re either a nailer or a hanger”; a terrorist is accused of misinterpreting the Koran.