Kevin's Review: Body of Lies - Probably the Best Thriller of Its Kind
by Kevin Powers
October 10, 2008
Post-9/11 thrillers have come and gone over the years, but none have ever really gotten the recipe right. The Kingdom is too heavy on action; Traitor tries to be too smart; and there's just no redeeming Rendition. It's easy to say that Ridley Scott's Body of Lies is a bit tardy, but I'd prefer to describe the film's entrance into this growing genre as fashionably late. With Scott at the helm, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe as leads, Body of Lies is a blockbuster both on paper and in execution. The truth is, it's taken a visionary like Ridley Scott to combine the right ingredients in such a way as to create the only truly compelling film of its kind that, despite dealing with combustible topics, manages not to destroy itself.
DiCaprio stars as cold, calculating CIA Operative Roger Ferris who maintains surprising capability and leadership in-country, despite his young appearance. As the film starts, Ferris is undercover in the Middle East working an asset that he feels can lead him to the big fish, Al-Saleem. Committed to his trade, Ferris deceives his informant in an impressively emotionless way -- a sacrifice that doesn't bear as much fruit as he hoped. These upfront sequences set a base temperature for Ferris' character, which is probably best described as a pragmatically frigid. (I even wonder if Scott purposefully made DiCaprio wear dark contacts as a device to show how truly vacant the guy is.) Eventually, the well-worn agent finds his way to Jordan and continues his white-whale pursuit of Al-Saleem, making deals left, right and backwards.
Though lacking in emotion, Ferris overflows with loyalty. His boss, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) is your conventional senior CIA shot-caller, who sits comfortably in his home in Virginia, while his men are on the ground doing the real dirty work. Crowe's character is particularly despicable, because not only does he lead from the comfort of the US, but from the routine of his mini-van. Hoffman's character is actually a bit poorly exaggerated as simultaneously (and unflinchingly) tucking his kid in and directing a kill is just a bit hard to believe. Hoffman becomes increasingly unlikable throughout the film, double-crossing Ferris for what he perceives as the best course of action. His response when confronted by Ferris is a good-ole-boy chortle that manages to wipe the slate clean. Ferris is loyal to a fault - many, in fact.
As Ferris continues to pursue Al-Saleem on the ground, Hoffman furthers his own agenda, which results in a stomach-tightening collision about mid-way through. Action and drama up to this point is pretty solid, especially an early sequence involving two helicopters; but the film ups the suspense a few decibels, setting the stage for an exciting second half. One bit of static that does pervade this portion of the film, however, surrounds Ferris' love interest. It's a plot device that I guess is unavoidable; it's also a tad contrived, seeing as how detached Ferris has been up until this point.
Though Body of Lies does have the intense and sophisticated polish of Ridley Scott, the film does ever-so-slightly stretch the bounds of the believable, both in technology and the acquisition of intelligence - one feeds the other, I suppose. Equally improbable (and frustratingly limp) is the film's last ten minutes. However, despite lofty maneuvers and far-fetched double-crosses, the film stays grounded enough to not only keep you believably at the edge of your seat, but also to instill a bit of actual fear.
By now most of us have heard of the perception that no party is truly innocent in a war, and that, in a way, the US can be seen as just as fanatical in battling the fanatics. This idea is nailed home with Hoffman saying on more than one occasion that "no one is innocent." Scott imbues this idea with such taut, rope-walking suspense that the concept is escalated to a new emotional level. While Scott might take some liberties this time around, he creates a world that is just legitimate enough so show us that true fear isn't to be found in the lies, but in the truth.