Deception. Disinformation. Deploying truth as a bridge to nowhere. Whoppers have become the lingua franca of our culture, useful in presidential campaigns, Wall Street bailouts, even diet books. And if you believe Body of Lies, U.S. intelligence wouldn’t work without them. Here’s a combustible spy thriller that wires Syriana to Three Days of the Condor, heats it with Patriot Act politics, and then lets Ridley Scott light the fuse. Snobs have dissed the British director of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator as a decorator tarred by his start in lowly commercials. Scott gets regularly gonged for letting style ride herd over substance, despite Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster and other potent proof to the contrary. In Body of Lies, Scott laces the action with simmering drama heightened by his killer sense of mischief. Who else would cast Russell Crowe as Uncle Sam and Leonardo DiCaprio as a pawn in his game?
Let me explain. Body of Lies, based on a 2007 novel by Washington Post foreign-affairs columnist David Ignatius, has the gritty feel of something observed firsthand. And the crafty script by Departed Oscar winner William Monahan stays coiled and ready to spring. DiCaprio, in top form, plays Roger Ferris, the CIA’s man on the ground in the Middle East, trying to stop a series of bombings in Europe orchestrated by Al-Saleem, an Al Qaeda operative based in Jordan. Roger, wounded in Iraq, can speak Arabic and wear disguises to penetrate a cell whose next attack may be on home turf. But unlike James Bond or Jason Bourne, Roger is fallibly human, an idealist stuck with the painstaking work of negotiating a path through shifting alliances, none more tangled than America’s own.
Enter Crowe as good ol’ boy Ed Hoffman, the CIA’s reigning spymaster. Crowe added 50 pounds to his gladiator frame to play the shambling suburban husband and father who uses a cellphone, a laptop and sometimes a personal visit to issue Roger his orders to kill. Factor in an Arkansas accent and you might judge the Aussie guilty of actorly excess. Hardly. Creative daring is more like it. Crowe plays Ed as flabby, fiftyish and friendly to a fault. “Hi, there, little buddy” is his standard greeting to Roger, whom he manipulates without conscience. In short, Ed is the avuncular image America shows to the world, swilling cereal in his pj’s, telling his wife he’ll come to bed just as soon as he’s through “saving civilization.” What Crowe reveals, in tandem with Scott and Monahan, is the moral rot behind the facade of Uncle Sam waving the flag of homeland security. Crowe’s implosive performance is lethally funny and dangerously scary, the kind of juicy experiment Marlon Brando often tried to shake up a tired genre (remember him as a killer cowboy in a dress in The Missouri Breaks?). Crowe is the live wire this movie needs. “All you need to do is trust me, little buddy,” he tells Roger, and you want to prod Roger to run for his life.
Roger suspects he’d be better off putting his fate in the hands of the nonextremist Muslims, personified by the head of Jordan’s secret service, Hani Salaam (Mark Strong is nothing short of brilliant in the role). Hani professes to hate lies, which makes him the film’s leading fish out of water. Roger has his doubts and refuses to trust Hani with his plan to catch the terrorists by making them believe that the CIA has infiltrated their cell. As Scott tightens the vise of the plot, Roger endures a graphic torture session. There’s no doubt karmic payback is part of the equation — just before going in for the kill, one torturer quips, “Welcome to Guantánamo.”
All the elements are in place to keep the excitement level high, including location shooting in Morocco, which adds to the film’s visceral hold. Scott is provoking the audience to consider the sins committed in the name of God and country, now disguised as due diligence. The respect Scott showed for Islam in his failed Crusades epic, Kingdom of Heaven, also written by Monahan, carries over here. But no one’s wearing blinders. It would be hard to find a timelier theme than power shifts in the spy world since September 11th.
Does the film have rough spots? You bet. A subplot in the novel about Roger’s hot fling with a blondie American volunteer worker has been rejiggered on film to become a passionate connection with a Jordanian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) who cares for Palestinian refugees. The result is commendably non-West-centric, but no less sentimentally conceived. Ditto the twist ending that drags in a glimmer of hope without laying a believable foundation. Body of Lies will be sold as a serpentine mind-bender, which it partly is. But the part that counts is the hard kick in the teeth the movie delivers to American duplicity. The kick feels deserved. No lie.