Body of Lies (Warner Bros.), the new Ridley Scott thriller about Iraq, is virtually indistinguishable from The Kingdom or Rendition or any number of terrorist-themed recent thrillers in which interchangeable Arabs in kaffiyehs do horrible things to the luscious physiques of A-list Hollywood stars. Certain moments are contractually required to happen in a movie like this: Camels will plod across the horizon as a woman’s voice wails in Arabic on the soundtrack. An expensive-looking aerial shot will soar over CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., as a legend on the screen’s lower left spells out, “Langley, Virginia.” Jeeps will explode in the desert. Leonardo DiCaprio’s forehead will perspire in extreme close-up. I will consult my watch.
DiCaprio plays Roger Ferris, a CIA operative in the Middle East who elevates himself from his fellow spies by actually liking the region and its residents. He speaks good Arabic, pursues a flirtation with a half-Iranian, half-Jordanian nurse named Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), and feels more at home dodging rabid dogs in the back alleys of Amman than he does at a cafe table overlooking the Mall. Ferris is an on-the-ground errand boy charged with carrying out the bidding of his gruff boss, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who observes Ferris’ every move from his hypertechnologized office at CIA headquarters. Hoffman has theories about how best to wage the war on terror—theories that have a way of interfering with Ferris’ desire to continue living. As the two men team up to catch a reclusive Bin Laden-like figure named Al-Saleem (Alon Abutboul), Hoffman’s arrogant, my-way-or-the-highway style sabotages Ferris’ attempt to build an alliance with the Jordanian king’s intelligence chief, Hani Salaam (Mark Strong).
Slate V: The critics’ consensus on this week’s movie releases.
A good hour into the film, Ferris hatches a plan to create a fake terrorist network, complete with staged bombings, to draw Al-Saleem out of the shadows. He persuades Hoffman to hire a crackerjack computer hacker (Simon McBurney) to create Web sites and false bank accounts framing an innocent Dubai-based architect (whom Ferris vows to keep safe—good luck with that). This potentially clever plot twist is the only thing that sets Body of Lies apart from the generic terrorist-thriller format described above, but it should have been introduced much earlier—by the time the fake-al-Qaida intrigue comes along, we’re too sluggish to engage with the details.
DiCaprio and Crowe, two supposedly high-wattage movie stars, are remarkably dull to watch together—perhaps because so many of their scenes together take place over the phone. (Occasionally, Crowe’s character pops up in Jordan for no discernible reason, other than a chance to see the two in the same room.) Crowe’s physique is not just a body of lies but a body of lard; he gained 50 pounds to play Hoffman, a deskbound bureaucrat with a neglected suburban family and a mobile headset affixed to his skull. Mark Strong, a British actor with some of the suave menace of Andy Garcia, out-acts everyone in sight as the impeccably dressed Jordanian spy Hani Salaam. Hani’s intricate, ruthlessly enforced code of honor is all the more effective because he truly believes in it. By contrast, Crowe’s character is a proudly unrepentant professional liar, and DiCaprio’s is an ambivalent and conflicted one. Even DiCaprio’s romantic interest, Aisha, is lying, deceiving her family and herself about the true nature of her mysterious suitor’s job. But the script by William Monahan (who also wrote The Departed) never takes the time to tease out the moral distinctions that would make these differences mean something. The minute anyone sits down to talk, up pops another jihadi with a rocket launcher.
Now that the war-on-terror action film has become as de rigueur as the Cold War one used to be, the Geneva Conventions should be revised to include a moratorium on the portrayal of torture in Hollywood (not that the Gonzales memos couldn’t have found a way around that, too). In some insidious way, the seamless incorporation of torture scenes into a standard spy story shifts the viewer’s focus from the political to the personal, from “Never again” to “No! Not Leo’s fingers!” Nothing against those attractive and well-insured digits, but I’m still waiting for the war-on-terror thriller that has more on its mind than the threat al-Qaida poses to movie stars.