October 27, 2008

Political Thriller Heavy On Explosions

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Briton Ridley Scott has directed some whoppers of American cinema over the years. Classics such as Alien and Blade Runner established him, and modern visual feasts like Black Hawk Down and Gladiator have cemented his impressive status. And, just to prove his mettle, Scott has ventured into the realm of human drama — of crafting films about characters that transcend flaws to overcome odds … even without shit blowing up in the background. See Thelma and Louise, Matchstick Men, American Gangster, and G.I. Jane (okay, so maybe some of those had an explosion or two). Scott’s name is synonymous with blockbusters that aren’t afraid to make the viewer think. He’s become so consistent that his skills have even rubbed off on his little bro, Tony. (Tony Scott gave the world Top Gun, True Romance, and Enemy of the State, to name a few).
So now, after many directors have tried and failed to address the current situation in Iraq (words chosen carefully), big man Scott is throwing his cards on the table. Sort of.
See, Ridley Scott delivered Body of Lies, which, to its credit, boasts the two-punch slam-bang casting of Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, playing new twists on established characters. Both are CIA agents. DiCaprio is a field agent named Roger Ferris, bearded just right so at first glance he’d almost pass for an Arab. (By the second glance, he has disappeared into a faceless crowd.) Crowe is the all-too easily named bureaucrat/asshole by the name of Ed Hoffman, who loves to fire before he aims from a continent away. It’s like Pitt and Redford in Spy Game all over again, right?
Not quite. Unlike that taut, but ultimately convoluted thriller by the younger Scott brother, Ridley is trying to have and eat his Iraq War-flavored, action-movie cake. This is a film trying to tackle serious issues about a very real scenario, while simultaneously attempting to lift a big-effects espionage potboiler off the ground. Spy Game had meager aspirations. Body of Lies gets too bloated with all of its subplots and subterfuge. It can’t treat a serious subject with the seriousness it deserves. Too much time is given to chase scenes and exploding safe houses. Not enough time is spent discussing the complexities of the situations.
The overall plot is quite dense, and difficult to explain concisely. In short, the movie has two acts, the first involving the straightforward pursuit of a terrorist named al-Salim (Alon Abutbul of Munich), who has begun bombing Europe, with plans to expand his destructive operations to the U.S. How charming.
Ferris chases informants all through Iraq to no avail, and his partner is ultimately killed. He heads to Jordan to align with Jordanian Intelligence and its leader, Hani (Mark Strong). He respects Hani, but his attempt to avoid treading on the Jordanians’ toes is foiled when Hoffman runs a parallel CIA operation that fouls up Hani’s grand scheme. Frustrated, Ferris attempts to smoke out al-Salim by starting a rival terrorist organization — a false front he hopes will draw al-Salim out of hiding, compelled by the overarching specter of greed and competition running through the world of fundamentalism. The second act deals with the shit-show that takes place as the “front” idea inevitably falls flat on its face and onto a proverbial landmine.
There are two scenes that attempt to provide weight and much-needed humanity. One comes from Crowe as the CIA boss makes a seemingly impromptu (but actually well-rehearsed) speech on the nature of the conflict at hand. His message: The enemy is not only smarter than we think, but smarter than we want them to be. They pass notes and deliver orders face-to-face. They provide no cell phones to track, no pictures to be identified by, nothing. They drive S.U.V.’s in circles to raise a cloud of desert sands and split off into five different directions, so all the satellites and laser systems and unmanned spy planes don’t know who to look for. Crowe’s canned delivery of this lamentable reality almost justifies his corner-cutting later in the film. Almost.
The second, and possibly best, scene in the movie comes as Ferris is sidetracked from his mission as he grows attracted to an Iranian-born nurse (Hollywood newcomer Golshifteh Farahani) who cares for him amidst the tense business in Amman, Jordan. After respecting the nurse’s boundaries, while giving a good chase, he helps her overcome her hesitation by brilliantly flirting with a mastery of Arabic. She relents and invites him to have lunch with her and her disapproving sister at her home.
The lunch scene brilliantly reveals much about the cross-pollination of culture, varying opinions on the war and the universal awkwardness of family and courtship ritual. The scene suspends itself above a movie rife with coarse language and gunfire.
Perhaps Ridley Scott should have focused more on what made movies like Matchstick Men endearing, and explored the burgeoning, rock-strewn relationship between the 21st century Jordanian woman and her interested American spy, rather than using and ultimately discarding the both of them the way this movie does.