“Welcome to Guantanamo”, Al-Saleem says to Roger Ferris before he crushes his fingers with a hammer. It is an excruciatingly tense scene that would have gone a lot farther without the obvious shot at the current political landscape. But aside from that, I’ll give Ridley Scott credit; he deftly avoided making the same agenda driven mistakes in his latest thriller Body of Lies that recent government spy thrillers have fallen into, putting together arguably one of the best written, directed and acted films of the year.
In it, Leonardo DiCaprio becomes Ferris, the street smart and increasingly disenfranchised CIA agent trying like hell to make a real difference in the war on terror. His cynicism grows because his handler, Ed Hoffman (Russel Crowe), who rests comfortably in his home in the States, views Ferris’ marks as an expendable resource to be used and tossed away once their information has been mined. When a situation ends poorly in Iraq (Hoffman turns his back on an informant which leads to Ferris’ discovery), Ferris is shipped to Jordan to lead an effort to infiltrate a suspected safe house for an al-Qaeda-like leader Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul). To gain access, Ferris quickly realizes he needs the aid of Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), the head of Jordanian Intelligence. Hoffman doesn’t agree, thinking American technology can overcome any and all local input. This fundamental ideological difference creates an atmosphere ripe for disagreements, lies and double crosses.
The guys feeling the short end of the stick are the characters portrayed by DiCaprio and to a lesser extent Strong, both of whom put on show-stopping performances. In DiCaprio’s case, he’s simply fed up with the bureaucratic bullshit which, time and time again, causes him to sacrifice hard earned sources and jeopardize his missions (not to mention his own life). From a personal standpoint, I can’t say I blame him for his frustrations, as working under those conditions is damn near impossible. These continued incursions allow for DiCaprio to showcase his acting strengths; mainly running through the entire emotional spectrum as few can. As for Strong’s character, he’s more on the ball and has the ability to overcome the manipulations and coercions applied by the US government. That doesn’t stop them from trying to circumvent him at every pass though, which gives him the opportunity to play the role, cool, calm and dead serious — never showing the cards in his hand while insisting everyone else does.
And while I’m on the topic of actors, Crowe shouldn’t be left out of the equation either. While his characterization of a desk jockey who believes his methods are best isn’t on par with his co-stars, he’s more than believable. Besides gaining 50 pounds for a part is no easy task either (just ask Bobby De Niro or Sly Stallone), although I hardly think it was a necessary measure to take to add realism to the portrayal.
The only hiccup in Body of Lies (other than the unneeded Guantanamo reference) is the quasi-love story that manifests itself halfway through the film between Ferris and an Iranian nurse Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani). The purpose of it is understood, but it feels awkward and unnatural — especially in light of the intense life and death situations waging around them. No matter, it is forgivable as there are bigger things afoot in the film.
What matters in the end is that Ridley Scott was able to present a highly entertaining film that broaches the difficult subject of American foreign policy and global terrorism, in what I suspect is a truthful manner, without interjecting any personal beliefs. For this he should be applauded as it is much harder to do than it sounds. Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Strong and to a lesser degree Russel Crowe deserve pats on the back too, as their outstanding portrayals in Body of Lies really bring the David Ignatius novel to life.