I'm still reeling from Body of Lies' remarkable box office flameout. The $70-million, Ridley Scott-directed, heavily-advertised spy thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe opened three weekends ago to third place and 12.8 million dollars, and will struggle to get to $35 million domestic by the end of its theatrical run. What the hell happened? A B-grade Jack Ryan movie with Ben Affleck can make almost four times that, and a film with this sort of pedigree winds up dead on arrival?
The answer, of course, is that The Sum of All Fears isn't the proper point of comparison. Because it turns out that Body of Lies isn't much of a "spy thriller" after all. Writing Part One of this column back in the summer, I mused that Scott and screenwriter William Monahan were going to have a tough time making author David Ignatius's ultra-realistic depiction of CIA grunt work into compelling pop cinema. I was probably right, because they didn't really bother. They responded to the problem by making the film less crackerjack and more political; less exciting, perhaps, but smarter, sadder. In doing so, they threw their lot in with the sorry batch of Iraq War films rather than Jack Ryan. It was a bold choice that resulted in one of the best movies of the year – and a resounding commercial failure.
Politically, Ignatius' novel more or less kept its head down. There was certainly a sense that Roger Ferris, the protagonist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, was frustrated with constant, counterproductive interference by his US-stationed superior Ed Hoffman (Crowe), but the subtext of this, if any, was soft: the problem wasn't any systemic defect but rather just that Hoffman was an insufferable micromanager. The book mostly concentrated on the fascinating (albeit not terribly cinematic) nitty-gritty of CIA field work in the Middle East.