There's a scene in "Body of Lies" in which protagonist and CIA rising star Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) shuffle-limps through a trash-strewn empty lot on the outskirts of an Iraqi town in a dirty jacket, cheap track pants and a floppy hat, complaining on a crappy cellphone to one of his CIA underlings that he's been bitten by a "goddamn diseased dog." That Ferris has just stabbed a man to death in a dusty alley is totally beside the point.
This scene, to me, embodies everything that is good about the 2008 Ridley Scott film -- namely, how conspicuously unglamorous it is. You could not get further away from martinis in Monte Carlo. Whether accurate or not, the viewer gets the sense that while other espionage films are dressing up, this movie is showing-it-like-it-is.
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And the movie is devoted to that aesthetic. Just about every time Ferris and his associates are shown in the field, their clothes appear to have come from the nearest second-hand store, and not the nice section. Even the cars are pretty much junk. In the story, it's obviously Ferris' attempt to blend in as best he can with the locals, but it's also the wardrobe department's mostly successful attempt to dirty-up the ever-pretty-faced DiCaprio. I'm sure it's no accident that Ferris' mug is usually recovering from some wound or another throughout.
The basic plot of the film, based on the book by David Ignatius (which I have not read), is this: Ferris is the relatively moral acolyte to Russell Crowe's Ed Hoffman, an unabashedly immoral, headquarters-bound CIA superior. The two work together, more or less, to track down an Osama bin Laden analogue named Omar Sadiki (Ali Suliman). Along the way Ferris teams up with Jordanian intelligence service chief Hani (Mark Strong), who is suspicious of Ferris, disdainful of Hoffman and generally somewhat mysterious.
There is also a love story wedged in there between Ferris and an Iraqi nurse, but I agreed with Alternate Ending's Tim Brayton when he described that bit as "shockingly out of place."
The love story isn't the film's only problem. Throughout it seems to just meander from place to place, and it took me a couple viewings to really understand why we were here and then here and then here.
The next biggest problem is that for all the realism in the wardrobe department, the plot and even a few characters are pretty incredible in the original sense of the word. In particular, there's one guy who may or may not be employed by the CIA, who works totally alone, has mysterious special operators under his command somehow and can apparently do just about anything with a laptop. That tendency to scrunch the jobs of dozens of people into one -- a common necessary evil for streamlining story-telling of "realistic" stories -- is taken to absurd lengths. There's almost nothing that Ferris, Hoffman or Hani don't do personally. It's as if Leon Panetta personally went on the bin Laden raid alongside SEAL Team 6 commandos.
But, I have to admit, I still like this movie quite a lot, and it grows on me more with each viewing. (Coincidentally, Ridley Scott is the brother of Tony Scott, who directed "Spy Game," a film I also think gets better with time.)
The perfomances are strong throughout. Strong's Hani is an especially intriguing character, played with a graceful sort of menace. Hoffman is thoroughly unlikable -- which means Crowe is doing his job -- but never moreso than when he casually gives Ferris dubious, deadly orders by phone while watching his kids play soccer in a wonderful juxtaposition of setting. And DiCaprio is reliably good as a much-screwed-over but extremely competent intelligence officer in a very dangerous place.
I wouldn't go as far as recommending the film to the general audience because it's faults are many, but fans of the genre could do worse.
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