Place Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” in the “been there, done that” category of recent spy thrillers about the Middle East. It has the same odd push/pull, yin/yang, pain/pleasure relationship between American intelligence agencies and jihadists as a number of other recent films.
Think “The Kingdom.” Think “Syriana.” Think “Rendition.” Think “Traitor.” On and on. The elements always seem to be the same:
The overconfident, bullying American control officer who believes subtlety equals weakness.
His more humane operative, a guy in danger of going native because he speaks Arabic and doesn’t automatically distrust all Muslims.
The operative’s Middle Eastern ally, who may or may not be a double-agent.
And, of course, the Muslim extremist villain, who distorts the Koran’s teachings to justify terrorist acts against innocent people.
OK – so it’s better than black-and-white stories that divide the world into absolute good/evil and then put a smackdown on the evildoers. Life isn’t that simple – or fundamental, as the case may be.
But “Body of Lies,” adapted from a novel by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, doesn’t find a particularly interesting way to cover the old territory. How can you worry about who’s telling the truth in a movie when real-life headlines are filled with action-packed stories of lies as a form of government? (The true Bush doctrine.) Why should anyone be surprised at a movie rehashing the same bruised optimism and sense of shock over the fact that, sometimes, the guys who come out on top are the ones who play the meanest and toughest?
Sure, director Ridley Scott is a past master at choreographing action and finding new visual tricks. But however fresh the frosting, this cake is stale.
Leonardo DiCaprio, wearing a scruffy beard, plays Roger Ferris, a CIA spook in the Middle East who actually speaks Arabic and understands the local psyche. He’s tracking al-Saleen, a bin Laden stand-in (but hey, aren’t they all bin Laden stand-ins until we actually catch bin Laden?).
His efforts are overseen – literally – by Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe),
his boss in Washington, who is constantly in his ear via cellphone. Hoffman is frequently looking over Ferris’ shoulder, thanks to drone planes and satellite uplinks, which give Washington a real-time bird’s-eye view, it seems, of every back alley in Baghdad, Amman and most other Middle Eastern hotspots.
So why do the terrorists seem to stay one step ahead? Because, as this movie tries to explain, the way to defeat modern technology is to go strictly old-school; fall completely off the grid. Eschew e-mail, texts and IMs and the like for good old-fashioned meetings on the corner, face-to-face transmission of information that is less likely to be picked up in a wiretap fishing net.
Ferris works his sources face to face, though DiCaprio – born to play an operator – is always less convincing when he tries to simulate sincerity. And this character is a believer – tough but understanding, streetwise but humane (though his caution isn’t enough to keep him from nearly dying when an operation goes south).
He’s sent to Jordan, where the local head of intelligence, Hani (the elegant Mark Strong, who is also very good in Guy Ritchie’s “RocknRolla”), may have a lead on al-Saleen. But Hani wants honesty in his dealings with Ferris – which is tough because Hoffman is forever running ops behind Ferris’ back.
The rest is a mélange of spy-movie tropes: the operative who falls for a local woman, dragging her and her family into the web of violence; a confusing ruse to create the appearance of an unaffiliated shadow cell, in hopes of smoking al-Saleen out of hiding; the final showdown, of course, between Ferris and al-Saleen (including a ballpeen-hammer manicure).
The suspense notes are by the book and the moral universe is foggy, to be sure. We’ve been enjoying the self-torture of conflicted spies since the early days of John LeCarre. Is collective memory so short that we’ve already erased “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” from the memory bank?
As for the physical torture, well, how can a fiction film trump reality? Oscar-winners Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and Errol Morris (“Standard Operating Procedure”), not to mention Rory Kennedy (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”), have offered more horrific looks at the real thing in their documentaries.
This is an exercise in stylized grittiness. DiCaprio gets to be the guy who is haunted by the fact that he also happens to be decisively deadly. Crowe plays the conscienceless boss, who is expedient and pragmatic – but not without a sense of humor. We’re expected to be engaged (or perhaps enraged) by his detachment as he readies his kids for school while casually giving orders to operatives halfway around the world, via hands-free cellphone device. He’s a soccer dad cheering his daughter – and he’s ordering the death of a suspected terrorist. Oh, the irony.
I’m not sure what I’m hoping for in a spy movie about untruth and disillusionment but “Body of Lies” feels too familiar. Tell me something I don’t already know.