There are two competing movies jostling for dominance in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe as CIA men immersed in dodgy dealings in the Middle East. The first is a thoughtful political thriller that is ambivalent about America’s role in the region; the second is a gung-ho action film that allows Scott to display his flair for blowing stuff up.
The story that strains to fuse these elements together finds DiCaprio’s CIA field agent working in uneasy partnership with Crowe’s agency veteran in a plot to flush into the open a shadowy Islamist terrorist named Al-Saleem, who is behind a campaign of bombings in Europe. DiCaprio’s Roger Ferris has come up with a scheme that involves setting up a fake terrorist cell, intending that Al-Saleem’s bloodthirsty outfit will be piqued by the appearance of this upstart rival and blow their cover. But the meddling of Ferris’s superior back in Washington, Crowe’s Ed Hoffman, threatens to scupper the plan and puts his life on the line.
The clash between DiCaprio and Crowe’s very different characters is the heart of the film. One is a sinewy man of action; the other is a paunchy desk jockey (Crowe put on 50lbs for the role). One is the agent on the ground with a fluency in Arabic and a feel for the local culture; the other is the hands-off strategist with the insight into the way Washington works. And one is a scrupulous spook who tries to protect his contacts, while the other is a cynical pragmatist ready to sacrifice any pawn in the game.
So DiCaprio’s Ferris gets battered and blown up, leading to the following terse exchange with a surgeon: “What’s that?” “Bone fragment. Not yours.” Meanwhile, Crowe’s Hoffman, armed with laptop and hands-free mobile phone, calmly manipulates events on the other side of the world from the comfort of suburban Washington, always unruffled, whether he’s in the middle of the school run or on the sidelines of his kid’s soccer game.
“You’ve got to decide which side of the cross you are on,” he tells Ferris. “Nailers or hangers.”
Scott’s film, however, can’t make up its mind. Is it liberal, with a sceptical view on the War on Terror? Or is it hawkishly neo-con? Is it a celebration of US technological might, its spy satellites able to zoom in on a man standing in a desert? Or is it a despairing wail at American impotence, its surveillance rendered useless by a man-made dust storm.
The movie’s indecisiveness will leave many viewers unsatisfied. Scott is great, as usual, at flashy pyrotechnics, but action fans will probably lose patience with all the tangled plotting. Similarly, cinemagoers impressed by the film’s insight into geopolitics (it’s based on a novel by Middle East correspondent turned Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) will bridle at the narrative’s compromises – including a chaste romance for Leo with local nurse Aisha (played by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani) and a cop-out ending.
Body of Lies is not as crass as The Kingdom, which was a blatant wish-fulfilment fantasy of FBI agents kicking terrorist butt in downtown Riyadh, and it’s not as earnestly overwrought as Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, but nor is it as nuanced as Syriana, which remains Hollywood’s best effort to date at putting the US’s violent oil-stained involvement in the Middle East up there on screen.