I found myself asking one simple question during Ridley Scott's Body of Lies, a well-shot, big-name intelligence thriller that sees Leonardo DiCaprio's CIA man caught up in action in the Middle East -- namely, what is Body of Lies for? I don't mean that in the sense of asking what it supports or believes in -- although, with the film's mix of Hollywood heroics and sneering cynicism, you're certainly left with that question -- but rather in the sense of asking what it is that Body of Lies means to accomplish or communicate. Part of the film feels like an attempt at a sprawling, globe-trotting story of realpolitik and moral complexity, in the mold of Syriana or Scott's own Black Hawk Down; other parts feel like Dolby-pumped slam-bang action, in the mold of Tony Scott's Spy Game or the Bourne Films. And some of Body of Lies feels like a weird, surreal workplace satire, with DiCaprio's on-the-ground intelligence agent fighting, fussing and feuding with his D.C.-based superior Russell Crowe; if you hate having your boss hover over your shoulder second-guessing you, imagine how it feels to have your boss looking over your shoulder second-guessing you from orbit via satellite.
Adapted from David Ignatius' novel by The Departed screenwriter William Monahan, Body of Lies follows DiCaprio's Roger Ferris through a series of run-and-gun intelligence-gathering missions that start in Iraq and travel the globe in the name of penetrating, and breaking, a terror ring operating on a global level. Ferris works for Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe, beefy and drawling), who runs his section of the CIA with a true believer's fervor. Speaking to a group of political staff and elected officials, Hoffman tries to get everyone in line by getting everyone scared: "Our world as we know it is much simpler... to put to an end than you might think." Ed knows that in an age of asymmetrical warfare, America's seemingly unsophisticated opponents have big advantages; you can't tap someone's phone if they don't have one, can't crack their e-mail if it doesn't exist. Instead, you need guys on the ground, which is where Ferris comes in; bearded and hunched over, Ferris works the streets of Iraq and tries to get intel without getting killed. His local guy, Bassam (Oscar Issac) puts the stakes in perspective as they drive to meet an informant: "If something happens, shoot me, ok? I am not getting my head cut off on the internet. ..." Everything goes wrong, though, even with Ed watching via UAV and satellite and backing Ferris up with the military might of the USA, and we get one of several action sequences in the film where Scott, as ever, demonstrates his firm grasp of the brute mechanics of modern action film making, with rocket strikes zooming and cars crashing as punctuation to the action, slow-mo destruction as semicolons and explosions as exclamation points.
Ferris and Hoffman's thwarted plans drive them to some fairly convoluted ends; soon, Ferris is in Jordan working with the aristocratic head of intelligence Hani (Mark Strong, a scene-stealing British actor who plays the part as half Andy Garcia and half Louis Jourdan). Hani is willing to work with Ferris, as long as he knows everything that's going on and he gets to be in charge. Ferris agrees with, and accidentally breaks, that pledge. Hoffman, of course, agrees with and deliberately breaks that pledge. Like Monahan's work in The Departed, there's occasionally something majestically cynical about Body of Lies, especially when Crowe's on screen.
Crowe plays Hoffman with bluff, bullying charm and a cornpone speaking style that's designed to lull you into complacency; watching the surveillance feed of a terrorist safe house in Jordan, Hoffman observes "I got jihadists coming and going from this place like it's happy hour at the cat house. ..." Crowe plays Hoffman like some evil version of Bill Clinton (or, depending on your personal beliefs, like Bill Clinton): A hearty, happy hound dog of a manipulator and schemer. DiCaprio is a little more earnest, a little put upon, a man more sinned against than sinning; that's all well and good in his scenes, but whenever Crowe's on screen DiCaprio gets kind of lost, his youthful belief like a brief rain against the granite-gray expedient amorality of Crowe's Hoffman.
Body of Lies wedges in a love story between Ferris and local nurse Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), which feels as if it was bolted on by the marketing department and the PR team, desperate to both get women into the theater and eager to demonstrate that not every resident of the Middle East is a bad person. As subplots go, it's more than a little unnecessary and more than a little distracting; I enjoyed Body of Lies much more during the co-dependent, conflicted clash between Ferris and Hoffman than during the gentle, tentative courtship dance between Ferris and Aisha. Big movie studios need to realize that trying to make every film satisfy every possible audience member makes for movies that don't satisfy anyone.
But then we get back to the shooting and the plotting and the lying and the feuding, and Body of Lies gives us what we expect of it -- moderate thrills with just a little geopolitics to make you feel like you're getting some intellectual stimulation to go with the ringing in your ears. From its opening W.H. Auden quote to its fashionably ambiguous closer, Body of Lies provides few surprises, nor does it make the kind of bold statements or offer the kind of big-picture view that might raise the audience out of merely sitting in the dark to take in the spectacle. It's already been noted that Body of Lies feels less like a Ridley Scott production than a Tony Scott one, less a film than a movie. Maybe Body of Lies got watered-down and focus-grouped to death on its way to the theater; maybe it didn't have that much to say to begin with. Canadian literary critic Robertson Davies once offered how "Thou shalt not read the Bible for its poetry"; I was caught up in the kinetic hustle, movie-star performances and world-weary charm of Body of Lies, but I also kept thinking that maybe you shouldn't film the war on terror for its explosions.