Body of Lies

dir: Ridley Scott
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Ridley is, apparently, the decent Scott brother who directs sometimes quite decent films. Yes, he made Hannibal, and part of me will hate him forever for that one, but generally he makes okay flicks, or at least he did thirty years ago.

Tony Scott is the awful hack who makes painful films that sully the Scott name, generally. He makes occasionally less than horrific flicks, and then makes horrific flicks which are an insult to the eyes and the intellect, damning our entire species whenever a single person pays good money to watch any of his movies.

In case you miss my meaning: I’d rather watch a Michael Bay movie than a Tony Scott movie.

In genre and content Body of Lies would seem to almost be more of a Tony Scott flick than a Ridley one, since he has previously made spy – high tech thrillers, with varying degrees of success (or annoyance, as the case may be), but for whatever reason the Brothers Scott flipped a coin and it came up Ridley. Which is good, because that means the film is at least watchable, as in a human pair of eyes can be trained upon it for minutes without bursting in dual showers of vitreous humour.

That’s not to say the film entirely works, and it seems like it drags a bit despite being fairly fast paced. But it’s very much of its moment, and tries to give itself credibility by treating, with credibility, the contemporary world of US Intel / Counterintel, jihadist terrorism, puppies with hurt paws and making out with hot Iranian chicks.

Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is some clever-clever CIA dude who’s trying to catch some pseudo al-Qaeda terrorist masterminds in the form of some sheik or imam or just a guy with a video camera and an internet connection. But the problem that people like Ferris and his undependable, egomaniacal micromanager boss Hoffman (Russell Crowe) face is that their enemy realises that there are all sorts of high-tech surveillance programs and techniques in place attempting to monitor all their communications, transactions, finances and everything else. And that the way to avoid them is quite simple.

What ‘the enemy’ is realising is that if they revert to low-tech, old school face to face communications, with trusted personnel eschewing emails and mobiles and such, then the CIA, the NSA and all the other satellite wielding technocrats have fuck all to work with. Over-reliance on technology and actionable intelligence in the form of transcripts of intercepts and such, and no people on the ground = 9/11 times a million, as the Republican campaigns back in 2008 kept telling us.

Time and time again the lack of on-the-ground knowledge, and the inability of the various intel agencies to infiltrate these perfidious groups crops up again and again as the fundamental problem facing the US in its war on jihadist terrorism, in the lead up to and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the Afghan and Iraq invasions. I don’t just mean in Hollywood films, which only an idiot expects to be educated accurately by. This is, after all, not that much more than a Bourne Identity-kind of flick without Jason Bourne in it, or much action in the way of action.

It does focus, moreso, on the kind of big picture intel stuff that has lots of conversations between people on phones, and lots of intense conversations between people debating how something should be done, and then there’s a few more phone-calls. Stirring stuff.

Then some shit blows up and the process rinses and repeats. It’s not a bad process, per se, and it’s preferable to keep the scenes of torture, of which there are a few, to a minimum, but it does get a bit wearying.

Also interesting, apart from the few things it gets right about the worlds of intel and the shiny face of terrorism, is that there are complex relationships going on between the US overlords and the other various foreign intelligence agencies even with the countries it’s meant to be friendly with. Over everything looms the never represented but quietly articulated reality that most of the dastardly groups screaming jihad and such are funded by one country above all others. No, it’s not North Korea. It’s not Tasmania, it’s not Yemen, it’s not Scotland or even Iran. Yes, it’s the fine nation where most of the 9/11 perpetrators came from, being Saudi Arabia.

That being said, most of the action is set in Jordan and nearby Syria. Jordan is becoming, in current Hollywood films, the safe and pleasant face of the Middle East. Anything that Hollywood wants to film and pretend is Iraq or Afghanistan usually ends up being filmed in Jordan. Even more so, Jordan, being a relatively less brutal place compared to some of the places around it, is almost being celebrated and complimented as an inducement, as if to say to the other failed nations and fundamentalist autocracies, “Look, why can’t you kids be more like your polite and quiet cousin Jordan? You’d get way better presents from Santa at Christmas time if you were.”

All of Jordan is represented for us by the head of Jordanian intelligence, being the chap Ferris obsequiously calls Hani Pasha (Mark Strong). It doesn’t bug me that they’re using a British actor of Italian extraction to play a Jordanian, since I don’t care, it doesn’t matter, and Mark Strong is an excellent actor. Still, it makes you wonder where Sir Ben Kingsley was during all of this.

The various characters, at sufficiently high levels, don’t trust each other even if they have motives that look like they’re in synch. Ferris is ‘our’ good guy, I think, but he does set up some innocent people for his own ends, who predictably are tortured and killed, for the sake of catching his prey. And his antagonistic relationship with his ‘boss’ and ‘mentor’, who is often contemptuously paternalistic towards him, shows that Ferris doesn’t trust Hoffman, and Hoffman is happy to manipulate and lie to Ferris in order maintain his own feeling of mastery over all he surveys.

When Ferris starts looking up to and getting friendly with Hani, Hoffman gets all pouty and sulky, and as jealous as a schoolgirl with a crush. The difference between a jealous and vengeful schoolgirl, and a CIA director is merely the amount of weapons available in their respective arsenals. The animus, and the hurtful rage at having been rejected is still palpably the same.

Hoffman hates the fact that Ferris likes Hani, so he goes out of his way to complicate their relationship, knowing as he does that if he can make Hani think Ferris is disloyal that Hani will give Ferris the cold shoulder for good (or kill him horribly), meaning Ferris will come crawling back to Hoffman. And then everything will be as it should be.

No, I’m not describing the plots of upcoming Gossip Girl episodes, or of vampire/werewolf romance shitfest New Moon: I’m talking about the high stakes world of international espionage and terrorist extermination. Because you see it all comes down to egos and feelings, and smashed fingers and such. People’s attachments to and feelings about each other are ruthlessly exploited by both sides of the War on Terribleness, and both clearly have an ‘ends justifying means’ mentality, but at least the forces on the side of niceness, decency, and not killing civilians, old people and puppies, are supposed to be doing all they do to prevent further carnage, not for the sake of it.

Look, I’m not going to pretend to tell you that Body of Lies, which is a pretty bad title for a flick, since it makes it sound like some Spice channel softcore porn thriller, is a credible, accurate and important take on current events and the world at large. I did enjoy it, however, and I don’t think anyone involved in the production needs to feel any embarrassment at their efforts. They crafted a reasonable engaging thriller with a lead character, being DiCaprio’s Ferris, who’s reasonably enjoyable. DiCaprio doesn’t get a lot of respect, mostly because people still resent him for his youthful stardom and success, but he’s pretty good at these kinds of roles now.

His character is pretty much the same as the one he’s assayed in recent stuff like Blood Diamond and The Departed, but he’s relatively convincing in the role. He’s cynical and determined, but at least he’s not a Jack Bauer from 24 clone running around the place torturing anyone he sees just for looking at him funny, all justified by the looming spectre of US global irrelevance. Sorry, I mean September 11 and Rudolph Giuliani’s shiny pate. DiCaprio has more range than people give him credit for, and, for my money, has been owed since playing Howard Hughes so well in The Aviator. He brings human touches to his Ferris character which are appreciable, and which don’t paint many of the issues at play as simplistic and mindlessly jingoistic.

It is a complex world we live in, and international ambitions, terrorism and the interactions of these paramilitary intelligence organisations make things even more complicated. Boiling all that down into an enjoyable 2 hour package for your entertainment might seem a bit unseemly, a bit crass, but after all, here we are now, entertain us. I was thoroughly entertained by it, and it does a far better job than many of recent flicks which have tried covering similar ground (Vantage Point, The Kingdom, Syriana) and have done so poorly. The premise mostly works, the representation of where ‘things’ are at works, the performances are solid, and, though too neat, the ending caps off the flick without being too much of an egregious cop-out

So all in all, Ridley Scott’s latest effort isn’t completely terrible, even if it is a bit superfluous. All entertainment is superfluous, in the scheme of things, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable for me. It’s not going to change anyone’s mind about torture, or about whether they should be sending morons out to blow up the innocent on public transportation, but it will whittle away agreeable at two of the hours one might have left before they pass on through to that great big Middle East in the sky.

7 times there’s something oddly enjoyable about DiCaprio telling Crowe to go on a fucking diet out of 10

“You are a rare and delicate flower.” – aren’t we all, Body of Lies.