Friday, October 10, 2008

Body of Lies: Truth or dare

Body of Lies (2008) • View trailer for Body of Lies
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and graphic torture
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.10.08
Buy DVD: Body of Lies • Buy Blu-Ray: Body of Lies (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

For all its concussive, eardrum-shattering explosions and a nasty contemporary plot certain to unsettle — if not terrify — viewers already worried about the spread of Islamic fanaticism, director Ridley Scott's new film is most persuasive during its quieter, conversational moments between two people ... proving once again that the foundation of good drama is character, character, character.
Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) first meets Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani) when
she begins his rabies therapy after a particularly vicious dog attack; he quickly
realizes that his interest in this kind, soft-spoken nurse is more than casual. But
is such a relationship wise, in a profession that puts him — and anybody he
knows — in harm's way?

And Body of Lies is filled with intriguing characters, all of them played quite persuasively by actors who do their best to stand out against Scott's perhaps too-eager inclination to ratchet up the tension with scenes of grisly, crowd-laden mayhem.

Indeed, the balance is wrong, during the scattershot first act, before all the players have been assembled on this story's chessboard; I began to worry that Ridley was unwisely imitating the insufferably tiresome visual tics and hiccups of his more bombastic but lesser-talented brother, Tony Scott.

Fortunately, cinematographer Alexander Witt's zigzag camerawork does settle down, and the prime movers in William Monahan's script — adapted from David Ignatius' chilling novel — are allowed to develop and coalesce. At this point, Body of Lies gets interesting and engage our minds, rather than simply trying to frighten us to death.

The primary relationship is one of distant opposites. Under deep cover and on the ground in Iraq, Jordan or Syria, CIA op Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) relies on razor-sharp instincts and language fluency to discover and infiltrate terrorist cells, and thus gain knowledge about — or even help prevent — destructive acts against innocent civilians.

Ferris takes his marching orders from, and is in constant contact with, seasoned handler Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), an insufferably pragmatic analyst whose big- picture views frequently collide with Ferris' intimate methods. Hoffman demands immediate results and will hasten the "development" (read: ruthless exploitation) of an "asset" (informant), even if this threatens long-term gains; Ferris is more willing to patiently nurture a source, believing that trust will reap more benefits than intimidation.

Their endless philosophical squabble takes place via the continuous cell phone conversations that link Ferris, bouncing hither and yon overseas, to Hoffman, based at Langley's CIA headquarters and outwardly living the life of an average suburban soccer dad. The incongruity of these long-distance dialogues, set against the actions of both men at any given moment — Ferris often chasing a suspect or fleeing for his life, Hoffman helping his young son make the transition to grown-up bathroom behavior — is deliberately ironic and always mordantly amusing. Talk about multi-tasking!

And yet these chats serve their purpose: We learn a great deal about both men, and come to admire them for different reasons. Ferris' insistence on honor —particularly in a land that respects such behavior — is just as crucial as Hoffman's recognition that world events can, of necessity, eclipse what seems prudent in one city, or even one country. These two men make a good yin and yang, although Ferris too often gets the short end of the stick, because the arrogant Hoffman rarely yields the point.

The older man is much too willing to risk making a mistake, and then apologize later; the younger man tries to avoid the mistake in the first place.

Both, however, desperately want to learn something — anything — that will help them find and neutralize a particularly ruthless Islamic mastermind (Alon Aboutboul, as Al-Saleem) who has orchestrated devastating bomb attacks in England and Europe. Al-Saleem operates so far in the shadows that he does not even claim credit for his atrocities, which makes him that much harder to find.

Ferris sees value in establishing a relationship with Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), the urbane head of Jordanian intelligence; Hoffman views this as unwise, believing (quite reasonably) that Salaam's interests probably won't extend beyond the Jordanian border. Ferris takes this step anyway; Salaam looks the younger man in the eye and promises that they'll get along just fine, "but you must never lie to me."

Naturally, a story of this nature will force Ferris to do just that.

By now, we've grown fascinated by the various negotiations. Salaam obviously respects Ferris, and wants to trust him; DiCaprio lays on just enough deference to make his character seem genuinely respectful, rather than merely ingratiating. We see, in Strong's eyes, that Salaam recognizes a clumsy American attempt at integrity, but also admires Ferris for the effort.

On an entirely different note, Ferris develops an interest in the nurse (Golshifteh Farahani, as Aisha) who helps him after a nasty attack. Although initially finding Ferris too glib, Aisha cannot help being moved by his polite persistence.

The gentle, touching development of this oil-and-vinegar relationship also involves considerable negotiation, and DiCaprio and Farahani play all their scenes perfectly. Aisha, a transplanted Iranian but no less proper, risks disapproval for even being seen in public with a man, let alone a white-faced foreigner; Ferris, understanding such complica- tions, navigates his courtship with the utmost care.

A shared meal with Aisha's sister and two young nephews is particularly sweet, although at this point the story's tumultuous nature makes us worry about the long-range practicality of Ferris' interest.

DiCaprio, definitely having moved beyond the post-Titanic swill that dogged him for several years — anybody out there remember The Beach? — has settled into his new career as a strikingly intelligent leading man, and one who also has the physical presence to suggest he's believably capable in a down-and-dirty scrap.

He makes Ferris likable and sincere; even when the man makes mistakes, they're prompted by idealism rather than stupidity.

Crowe has the tougher assignment: getting us to understand and even admire Hoffman, when the man is repeatedly cold, manipulative and utterly unforgiving. Crowe, who cultivated an Arkansas accent and gained 50 pounds to make his CIA handler/analyst even more imposing, pulls it off. Even as we despise Hoffman's methods, we can't help hoping that people just like him are the guys in charge; he seems capable of getting the job done.

Even if, at times, he seems willing to accept the collateral damage, should things go wrong, that George C. Scott joked about so glibly, in Dr. Strangelove: "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Depending on the breaks."

At the end of the day, Body of Lies is slick, old-style melodrama infused with 21st century technical wizardry and an up-to-the-minute depiction of the unfolding clash between real-world ideologies. It's an intriguing cocktail, and one that has worked ever since Hollywood tackled the "gangster problem" back in the 1930s.

But I sometimes worry, in this day, if the real-world Al-Saleems are pleased to be viewed with such fear. Isn't that their goal?

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