Take two of the best actors of their respective generations, one acclaimed veteran director and a relatively big budget, mix them all up in a movie with a topical plot about the CIA working against terrorist cells in the middle east and you would somehow expect to come up with something of a masterpiece. Ridley Scott gave us Alien, after all, gave us Blade Runner, Gladiator, and if you want to talk war movies - he gave us the haunting Black Hawk Down. And he has worked with Russell Crowe as much as his brother has worked with Denzel Washington, and with equally reliably results - for the most part. And Leonardo DiCaprio has gone from just another pretty-boy Orlando Bloom predecessor to the best actor of his generation - mainly thanks to the tutelage of Scorsese (who has effectively done for DiCaprio what he did for DeNiro all those decades back) but also thanks to picking some ripe vehicles (Blood Diamond, The Aviator, The Departed) to show off his newly uncovered talent. Putting this bunch together for this movie should have been a sure thing, a guaranteed modern classic, a trifecta of tour de force contributions. But was it?
Whether driving his kids to school or sitting in the park, CIA operational manager Ed Hoffman is always on his phone, giving calculated orders to his Agent on the ground, Roger Ferris, who is busy making connections and putting his life on the line amidst rival intelligence agencies and various terrorist cells in Jordan. Under the guise of patriotism, tainted by cynicism, Hoffman's tired veteran sees everything as a big game - albeit a deadly one - where the greater good justifies all the myriad little people his missions squash in the meantime. Although not all his ideas are wrong in respect to combating terrorism, his personal attitude towards the Middle East is heavily prejudiced to say the least, and Ferris' experienced Agent bears the brunt of the machinations that go on above his level. Caught up with the mysterious head of the Jordanian Intelligence Services, falling for a forbidden Muslim nurse and battling his own sense of morality versus the flagrant disregard for life his boss exhibits, Ferris must decide whether he really wants to live (and potentially die) like this anymore.
Body of Lies is a cleverly constructed, involving and intriguing spy thriller, with plenty of expensive, explosive action, and reliably decent performances. But it is not a great movie. It keeps you interested throughout, builds up the tension in all the right places, gives you just enough from the cast to remind you that they are indeed great actors, and offers up enough directorial flair to hint that this was the man who gave us the poignant Black Hawk Down, but it is not perhaps the substantial, intellectual political drama that it somewhat purports to be. You don't leave the movie ruminating over how devious the American Intelligence (contradiction in terms?) Services are or gaining any particular insight into the minds of individuals in the Middle East (the terrorist leaders to the cell 'puppets', the innocent civilians caught up in it, Middle Eastern women etc.), or sparking up a debate with your friends over what issues the movie has raised. This is definitely Syriana 'lite', the diet version of a decent political thriller, which has been tailored a little bit too much towards an audience who need relative plot simplicity and ostensibly satisfactory results in order to cope with such a movie. More The Kingdom crossed with (the admittedly excellent, at least in the entertainment department) Spy Game, than the murky, potent drama that was Clooney's stark Syriana, Body of Lies is too busy trying to entertain 'Hollywood-style' to get too involving on a political level. That is not to say that it fails at being entertaining - the whole point is that it does not - but in remaining immediately captivating it loses all long-term significance or resonance, and feels a little forgettable.
Performance-wise I also expected more from Crowe and DiCaprio, although perhaps they weren't given the characters (and thus the room) to show off their full talents. Crowe was similarly handicapped in Ridley Scott's recent, lacklustre (and also forgettable) American Gangster, and here he has a decent enough character who just doesn't have the screen-time or scenes to allow him to get his acting chops fully into the material. I have hopes that his next co-starring effort, the State of Play remake, gives him more of an opportunity. DiCaprio has been on a roll, at the top of his game recently, and certainly did not pick a bad movie here, but this is far from his best performance (arguably when he simply became Howard Hughes in The Aviator) and not even a strong performance in a mediocre but entertaining movie (as in the unnecessary Scorsese remake, The Departed). You can see he can act, but this is the closest he has come in the last few years to phoning-in a performance, giving his standard strained look and getting his body torn up in all manner of ways but with no real depth or gravitas behind it. Compare Clooney's trouble in Syriana to the almost-mirror-image scenes for DiCaprio here and it simply does not get to the viewer as much. It is far, far from a bad performance, by anybody's standards, but he can clearly do better and here he just seems to give a slightly watered-down mish-mash of characters he has previously given to us with richer, more involving performances. If anyone should be lauded for his performance, it is England's own Mark Strong, who you would be forgiven for not even recognising in his supporting role as the head of the Jordanian Intelligence Services, Hani Salaam. Working his way slowly from the British small screen to the Hollywood Big Screen, Strong has gained supporting roles in quite a few high-profile movies recently, including a couple of Guy Richie flicks, Sunshine and the upcoming Sherlock Holmes reinvention. Here he is outstanding, totally embracing his master chess-player character, exuding a sense of constant foreboding with a Godfather-like presence and omnipotence. With Crowe and DiCaprio simply doing their jobs, Strong gives the performance of his career, although - as aforementioned - it may have a lot to do with being given a decent, well-crafted (and unpredictable - i.e. not stereotyped) character to work with. It's probably also worth noting Golshifteh Farahani (who plays the Muslim girlfriend, Aisha), who is one of the very first Iranians to garner a role in a mainstream Hollywood movie and allegedly needed permission from the US Government to do so. Effortlessly she captivates in her role, making the situation surrounding her casting (and the very fact that it is unique) even more of a travesty.
Body of Lies is a solid, entertaining spy thriller with dummy's guide political undertones, complete with decent enough performances from heavyweight actors, some nice action set-pieces and technical gimmickry for visceral visuals and a plot complicated enough to make you feel clever for following it, but not substantial enough for you to actually think about it in any depth. It is still arguably a cut above your run-of-the-mill thrillers, but kind of ranks alongside The Kingdom, definitely erring on the side of being immediately entertaining rather than thoughtfully resonant.
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