He often doesn’t get quite the respect or reverence he deserves, but Ridley Scott is one of the most important directors of the last thirty years. One of the first directors to be given the promotion from advertising director to feature film director, Scott brought a new level of polish to the screen, raising the bar on cinematic production values. This is a fairly unpretentious accomplishment, but it’s every bit as important as the accomplishments of people like Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch, or Werner Herzog. Scott’s mastery of cinema production values is his greatest strength, no movie has better sets, special effects, photography, or set pieces than a Ridley Scott movie, and he’s still a cut above all his competitors.
However, I must say that a number of the movies Scott has made during this decade haven’t been as good as they should have been. When Scott made Gladiator in 2000, it looked like he was making a major comeback, but since then I frankly think that he’s been playing it a little too safe. His first post-Gladiator project, Hannibal was awful, I blame Thomas Harris’s horrible novel for that one, and since he made the excellent Black Hawk Down right after it Scott still seemed like he was on the right track. Then he made Matchstick Men which I think is an underrated gem, but after that the trouble started. Kingdom of Heaven was passable, but not anywhere as good as it could have been, partly because of Orlando Bloom’s lackluster screen presence and partly because of a compromised theatrical cut. At least Scott learned his lesson from that and never casted Orlando Bloom again… or anyone else who isn’t Russell Crowe. I didn’t even see A Good Year, and American Gangster was good, but again not anywhere near as good as something with that pedigree should have been. Now Scott has made another film, and this one was about the American war on terror, now that didn’t sound like something that would be playing it safe.
The film centers around Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), a CIA agent on the ground in the Middle East. He takes orders from Edward Hoffman (Russell Crowe), a middle aged CIA member who claims to be an expert on the region but who gives his orders over the phone from his suburban household. After a botched operation on the ground in Iraq, Ferris is sent to Amman, Jordan to track down a terrorist leader who is the likely perpetrator. There he teams up with the local intelligence agency lead by a man named Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), who demands only one thing: that Ferris never lies to him. They devise a plan to infiltrate a terrorist safe house by conditioning a member of the organization to their side.
I don’t need to tell anyone how much 9/11 and the war on terror had affected our society. When the wars in the Middle East began, it was a great opportunity for filmmakers to use their craft to either make statements about our society or at least have a dramatic situation to depict. The movie that was probably best able to utilize the geopolitical situation was probably Stephen Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, a film that had the patience to honestly describe the full complexities of the Middle East’s affect on America and America’s effect on the Middle East. Three years later, Syriana remains the gold standard for this genre, unfortunately most of the movies related to Iraq or the broader war on terror since then have not lived up to their potential. Many of them fall prey to peachiness, as was the case with Rendition, others are just too busy being angry to act as good narratives, as was the case with Redacted. These movies are overbearing and don’t work, but at least they’re trying to do something, on the other end of the spectrum there’s last year’s retarded action film The Kingdom, which exploited the war on terror in order to film a number of explosions and justified it with meaningless pseudo-moralizing in the last fifteen minutes. Body of Lies never reduces itself to the level of that stinker, but by the end it doesn’t seem to have much more on its mind.
This movie does not have a message, it doesn’t clarify the Middle East, and it isn’t a well reasoned drama. In fact Kingdom of Heaven, a movie about the 12th century crusades, probably had more to day about the modern Middle East then this does. All right, that’s an overstatement; there are a few ideas on the surface about the effect of decision making by people removed from the realities of the region, but it’s clear to me that this is not why Ridley Scott made this movie. This is a spy thriller pure and simple that happens to deal with the current conflicts. The film makes me wonder what all those cold war spy movies must have felt like while the cold war was actually going on. Like most of my generation I don’t remember much of the Cold War, and I wonder if the way I watched a Bond movie like From Russia With Love would be different if the Russians actually posed a nuclear threat. Of course a lot of those movies usually sidestepped their political implication by making the real bad guys separate criminals like SPECTRE or some sort of rouge general, there’s no such separation in The Kingdom or Body of Lies, the villains are Islamic terrorists with only superficial differences from Osama Bin Laden. Similarly exploitative undertones also killed off a lot of the fun that could have been had from movies like the new Rambo and Blood Diamond. Frankly, I’m not comfortable with simplistic action movies being made against the backdrop of the serious problems in the Middle East.
Of course this all would have been a lot more forgivable if I thought Body of Lies worked better as a straight up thriller. The movie’s fractured act structure prevents the stakes from really raising to high before the movie moves on to other things, and the ending is really anti-climactic. Also the action is mostly front loaded, in the first act there is a pretty big shootout, and an awesome car chase involving a helicopter. After that though, the movie becomes more of a cloak and dagger affair.
Ridley Scott’s direction is as slick as ever, and the dialogue is also quite good. Russell Crowe gives a pretty fun performance; it’s certainly fun watching him talk on one of those cell phone microphones that dangle down on a wire anyway. Di Caprio is also perfectly functional as the film’s hero, although I could have done without the vaguely southern accent he’s trying to do. The one who steals the show here is Mark Strong, who is really bringing his A-game as the head of Jordanian intelligence.
It should really be noted that this movie coasts along as far as it possibly can with great production values, star power, and good dialogue. But all this can only take it so far, Scott manages to maintain a certain level of dignity through the whole affair, but it can’t make up for the movie’s general pointlessness. It’s never as stupid as The Kingdom, but I don’t think it will be much more memorable either. Scott can do a lot better than this and I think he needs to think a little less commercially with the projects he chooses, as can the rest of this cast. Body of Lies is ultimately a movie unworthy of its pedigree, a real missed opportunity.
**1/2 out of Four