Body of Lies (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Body of Lies Poster

Body of Lies is an adult thriller with such a high narrative density that even a brief trip to the restroom may result in key plot points being lost. The film is the antithesis of a slick, superficial feature like Eagle Eye. It both demands and rewards thought. It engages the mind instead of punishing those who use it for reasoning. Body of Lies neither panders nor condescends. It involves current events and has a political viewpoint, but it overplays neither. And, while the movie is very much story-driven, it doesn't lose sight of the characters along the way. It's smart and complex in the same way that films like Syriana and The Departed are smart and complex.

Ridley Scott isn't afraid to take risks and he has built up enough Hollywood credibility to allow him to make the film he wants. Body of Lies isn't going to find much favor among the teenage crowd but it is the kind of motion picture that older, more sophisticated viewers hunger for. Despite the convoluted nature of the storyline and the way events jump from one location to another, Body of Lies is consistently well paced and, as it moves past the 60 minute mark into its second hour, it begins to exhibit more of what we expect from a thriller: tension and suspense.

Rather than attempting to dissect the plot in any detail, the best approach is to lay the groundwork. Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) are a CIA team. Ferris is the field guy; he has all the contacts and knows the layout. He can move with ease from Iraq to Jordan to Syria. He can tell that a nurse working in Amman is from Iran based on her accent. Hoffman is his desk-bound boss, who sits like a spider at the center of a web in Langley, watching Ferris from above via real-time satellite images. It's the ultimate Big Brother scenario. Ferris and Hoffman's latest operation has them going after an Osama Bin Laden clone, Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul). To do this, they must partner with the head of Jordan's Intelligence Agency, Hani (Mark Strong). But Hani is as smart and manipulative as any CIA director and Ferris finds himself trapped between orders from Hoffman and the Jordanian's single directive: Do not lie to me.

Body of Lies crisscrosses the globe, with scenes taking place in no less than a half-dozen countries, including the United States, England, Holland, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria. While the globe-trotting may be James Bond-like, the activities of the spies are not. There's nothing suave or dignified in the ways these characters interact. The do not take their martinis shaken (not stirred) - they gulp down the vodka in one mouthful and get on with the job. For the most part, the tone is one of seriousness, but Scott allows for one scene of levity and a little light romance. Visually, the film is interesting in the way it uses satellite images to present a wider, bird's eye view of the action.

The screenwriter is William Monahan (adapting from a novel by David Ignatius), who is developing a reputation as someone whose scripts are multifaceted and detailed. He took the basics of Infernal Affairs and fleshed them out for The Departed. And his original storyline for Kingdom of Heaven was far more thought-provoking than the neutered version that reached screens (as anyone who has seen the Director's Cut will testify). The screenplay for Body of Lies is in the same league. It's refreshing to watch a movie where the viewer is not always two steps ahead of the characters.

In essence, the movie has a deceptively simple theme that is italicized by an opening quote by W.H. Auden: "Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return." It's about the slippery slope that exists when those with the best intentions begin to emulate the tactics of the enemy in order to defeat them. Body of Lies illustrates this in ways that are neither obvious nor expected. The most chilling thing about the film may be its verisimilitude. Where Eagle Eye exists only in the realm of science fiction, it's possible that things like those depicted in Body of Lies are happening now in the real world. Rarely has the question of whether the end justifies the means been brought to the fore in such a forceful and brutal manner.

There is a scene late in the movie that will distress some viewers. Seen objectively, it's far less graphic than what one might expect from a horror movie. Scott does not dwell lovingly on the violence, but he makes it perfectly clear what's going on. So why is this so more unsettling than the routine eviscerations depicted in the Saws and Hostels? Because the characters in this film seem like real people, not fodder to feed a serial killer. Body of Lies takes the time to flesh out Ferris and Hoffman. The latter is depicted talking to his man-on-the-ground while spending time with his family. The latter is allowed to romance the nurse who treats him for rabies.

I don't think either Leonardo DiCaprio or Russell Crowe will be in line for an acting nomination as a result of their work here. Although they give strong performances, there's nothing showy about them. These portrayals are straightforward and convincing; there's no mugging for the camera. Crowe exhibits his versatility by playing a sleazy, obnoxious man who pushes around people like chess pieces. DiCaprio builds upon his work in The Departed and Blood Diamond. They are ably assisted by Mark Strong, whose beguiling interpretation of Hani may be the best piece of acting the movie has to offer. He gives the impression of how Satan may have convinced Eve to partake in the Garden of Eden.

Numerous recent movies have used the current, unstable geopolitical situation as a backdrop. Few have done it as effectively as Body of Lies, and almost none are as free of preaching. Scott acknowledges the gulf of moral ambiguity that exists for those working in the intelligence field, and pursues it to its natural conclusion. For those who care about there being more to a thriller than pointless car chases and over-edited fight sequences, Body of Lies offers a satisfying dose of truth.

Body of Lies (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2008-10-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1