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Ain’t nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There’s nothing here to like.

Movie

Body of Lies
(2008)

 

Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar on the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies‘ one saving grace is that it wasn’t a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the “just fight” (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced as a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Ridley Scott and politics really shouldn’t mix. Black Hawk Down found him firing on all cylinders as a director, albeit in service to a state-sanctioned rendition of what went down in Mogadishu (the heroic Americans against the oncoming hordes of unfriendly natives). Kingdom of Heaven had Orlando Bloom attempting to bring peace to the Middle East by way of laughably contemporary values. Here, Scott and screenwriter William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) are, to paraphrase Hans Gruber, following the terrorist movie rule book note by note, such that all you really need to know is Leo’s field agent has to track down a terrorist cell and is motivated for all the right reasons, while his boss (Crowe) is a cynic much readier to get others’ hands dirty than his own.

It should probably be no surprise that the movie is essentially a government promo piece, since David Ignatius, who wrote the novel of the same name, is a columnist for the Washington Post. You know, that publication of undiluted journalistic values (just ask Kevin Shipp). He’s entirely sympathetic to the cause (“CIA officials put up with a degree of public abuse that would be unimaginable in the case of military officers“) and so wants to further it in any way he can (“Even the CIA has a soft heart says one of his characters). Accordingly, the subject matter attempts to strike a chord by addressing heartland issues; the locations may be Iraq and Jordan, but these terrorists are planting bombs in Europe (a good thing the Americans are there to save them).

The only qualms Body of Lies shows regarding the War on Terror aren’t in respect of its causes or rectitude, but how the fight is fought. So good Middle Easterners are the ones showing an almost British gentility and cunning (funnily enough, because Jordanian Hani Salaam is played by Mark Strong, all eccentric “My dears” when addressing Leo, tailored suits and – as pretty much every review noted – unswerving suavity).

Salaam’s methods are effective, and Leo, being a cultured sort who learns the local language and likes the local people, has respect for him that contrasts entirely with Crowe’s china shop bull (he takes his calls to Leo while giving his son toilet training). The CIA as a flawed, fallible outfit is part of the official script, of course (as well as being accurate), since it fits with the idea that it is necessary but cannot do everything (so requires ever more funding).

The illusion of complexity created by Leo being stuck in the midst of others’ agendas, thus leaving him jaded and disillusioned with the apparatus (I’m guessing this is why he thought Body of Lies was a throwback to The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor – I mean, really?), is consistently fought by Scott’s stylistic choices. These are all desert panoramas of billowing dust spread by convoys of cars, black helicopters sweeping by stylishly, Enemy of the State-style satellite (and drone) surveillance, and action sequences chock full of slow-motion and blood squibs.

The present and correct tropes are all here – suicide bombers, torture, including a conversation on how it doesn’t work, lecturing a terrorist on how his behaviour conflicts with the Koran – ensuring a pervading sense that this is re-treading a well-worn furrow, and the promise of starry names does nothing to alleviate the fatigue.

Matthew Alford in Reel Power read the movie as “not about the legitimacy of US actions, which are taken as read, but rather how we can make better use of foreigners to implement the War on Terror more effectively” – “What we need to learn to get it right”, as the film’s writer David Ignatieff puts it (on the DVD commentary).

Crowe’s actually pretty good, making Ed Hoffman a cocky blowhard, morally and empathically detached from process and results, for whom expendability is a byword. His casual approach to dealing with Leo’s Ferris and Jordanian politics rather oversells the point, though. He’s a caricature, every bit as much as Ferris is a ridiculous man child; this was the era before Leo could effectively deliver adult roles but was trying his best to fill their shoes, with the aid of as many props (goatee, baseball cap, tooth pick permanently in place) he could muster. The general failings of the characterisation are only underlined with by Ferris’ romance with nurse Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani, memorable in the recent Paterson), leading to a risible “kidnap” plotline. There’s also an early role for Oscar Isaac, unfortunately killed off in the first act.

Monahan substitutes hangdog jadedness for any kind of insight (“Nobody’s innocent in this shit, Ferris“). However, I don’t think audiences were ever buying into this faux hand-wringing. Give them a jingoistic real hero with no nods to the cause of the conflict itself, and there might be a response (American Sniper). But this kind of fare satisfies no one (still, Ridley just can’t keep away from the region, as Exodus: Gods and Kings would prove).

At one point, Ferris tells terrorist Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul) that one of his men is working for the Head of Jordanian Intelligence, and since the Head is working for the US, that means Al-Saleem really works for the US Government. He means it as a wind-up, mid finger-crushing, but it’s about as near as Body of Lies gets to what’s really going on.

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