Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Movie review: Body of Lies, dir Ridley Scott (2008)

This action thriller had a mixed critical response, according to Wikipedia, but it did well at the box office. The film has a star cast, with Leonardo Di Caprio as Roger Ferris, a CIA operative, and Russell Crowe as his boss, Ed Hoffman. The director is famous for such modern classics as ‘Alien’ (1979) and ‘Blade Runner’ (1982).

Both leads in ‘Body of Lies’ are cocksure and accident-prone. Mark Strong does a good job playing Hani Salaam, the head of Jordan’s intelligence body, a man who is confident living in his element. The story is complex and episodic, and you are given multiple chances to recover from points of high tension, each more violent than the last.

As an artefact of the US War on Terror – which, of course, is still playing out, as various rogue loonies stage attacks in places like Paris and London – this film is solid and interesting. The writing is good and the directing is excellent. It is self-consciously a genre movie but its quality sets it apart from the bulk of films of this nature.

What it does well is to show how, in league with various American administrations, the CIA has earned a reputation not only for mendacity – what else are spies but consummate liars – but for unethical and, even, immoral conduct. Looking at the broader historical landscape (cf especially the overthrow, in the 50s, of an elected Iranian government), grubby tactics used by the CIA and its managers has been responsible for bad outcomes, and this film illustrates this legacy of lies.

The bodies in question belong to the men and women who are intelligence operatives, who are agents, who subscribe to militant Islam, or who get mixed up in the circus through no fault of their own. The body sometimes suffers due to the ideas of its owner or, more insidiously, due to ideas someone else harbours in their mind.

There is thankfully no gratuitous violence in this film, which I saw on Netflix, but while watching it and thinking about it afterward I felt that the secondary characters might have been better realised. A criticism the film drew was that too much depends on the performances of Crowe and Di Caprio.

We know, for example, that many terror attacks in the West are carried out by men who have mental health issues or who have previously engaged in petty crime. Nothing like that is evident in the plot of this movie, as most of the secondary characters are not fleshed out enough, so it remains a competent production rather than an excellent one. Keeps you on the edge of your seat though …

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