Dutifully, they lined up to Enlist in Liberal Hollywood's answer to the war on terrorism, and one by one, last year's political movies were mowed down by audience indifference. Oscar-winning actors could not lure moviegoers to see Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah or Rendition; viewers figured the films were a cross between a harangue and homework. Not many more people came when producers tried crossbreeding hot-spot intrigue with familiar genres. The Kingdom, a Jamie Foxx action picture set in Saudi Arabia, and Charlie Wilson's War, with Tom Hanks in an upbeat comedy about Afghanistan, earned the stars some of their lowest box-office numbers in years. Americans, urged by their President to defeat the terrorists by going shopping, apparently didn't put tickets to war-on-terrorism movies on their must-buy list.
Maybe Body of Lies will break the losing streak. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Roger Ferris, a fearless CIA operative roaming the Middle East, and Russell Crowe as his Stateside boss Ed Hoffman. The movie was scripted by William Monahan, Oscar winner for The Departed, and directed by Ridley Scott, who proved in Black Hawk Down that he knows how to detonate suspense in the bazaar of political ideas. More important, Body of Lies is based on David Ignatius' best seller, which casts Ferris as a good-guy hero, firmly in the spy-novel tradition, and makes him the agent of a devious plot that could just about save the world.
Does Roger-Leo conquer the evildoers? We'll never tell. But as for Body of Lies conquering the audience, demonstrating that a film can be true to knotty issues of counterterrorism and still lure the masses with updated spy-movie thrills: mission ... well, nearly but not quite accomplished.
Movie as Maze The explosive events of Sept. 11 made Muslim nations a playground for spies, as Berlin was during the Cold War. But the new boom market was different; KGB agents weren't likely to blow themselves up to make a political point, and the middle-class whites in the CIA couldn't easily pass for Arabs to infiltrate an al-Qaeda cell. Ferris makes use of locals to sleuth out information. But he and Hoffman have a bigger, wilder plan. The notion is to plant incriminating data on a plausible corpse and create a fictional CIA spy who the terrorists will believe has penetrated their ring. (British intelligence hatched this idea in 1943 for an anti-Germany caper that was memorialized in the book and movie The Man Who Never Was.) It's up to Ferris to use the charade to draw out an insurgent leader who is as elusive as he is deadly.
Ignatius reveals this scheme in his book's opening chapter. Monahan and Scott take nearly an hour to start focusing on it, so fascinated are they by the daily risks and gambles an American in Arabia must take. It's low-tech guts on the ground, high-tech snooping in the sky. As Ferris lays his life on the line for another scam out in the desert, Hoffman gets a remote overhead view through the Predator surveillance system. He might be God watching his creatures, or a lab technician staring down at the rats in his maze.
Body of Lies is itself a maze movie, a subgenre that has both its seductions and its brambles. A maze movie flatters viewers' intelligence, their ability to sort out the jigsaw pieces of an elaborate puzzle. So the film hopscotches the globe, Syriana-style, from Qatar to Syria, Amman to Baghdad, with an incendiary side trip to Manchester, England, and back to Hoffman's office and breakfast nook in Virginia. The film introduces so many swarthy faces--foremost among them Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), the Jordanian intelligence chief--and in such a hurry, you may feel you need the equivalent of the 55-card deck of Saddamists the U.S. military handed out at the beginning of the Iraq invasion.
That's the danger of a teeming cast of malefacting characters: they get jumbled in the viewer's mind, and slack-jawed apathy ensues. Novels can afford a rich banquet of personalities; it's what readers sign up for. But ratiocination isn't welcome in modern movies, which prefer visceral impact over intellect. Not that the film should kowtow to ignorance--only that it might have streamlined the dramatis personae, the better to concentrate on the plot.
To meet the action-movie fan halfway, Body of Lies punctuates its chatter and derring-do with explosions. At first the shock is salutary and, in movie terms, socko. But as the bombings mount, they become routine, expected, like the dance numbers in an Astaire-Rogers musical. Indeed, nothing happens just once in this movie, including gruesome torture scenes. The chief terrorist's threat--"We have bled. Now they will bleed. And bleed until they are bled out"--is the movie's promise.
Another nod to antique and modern movie tradition is The Girl: the lovely flower in an arid ethical landscape who wins the hero's heart and puts him in jeopardy. Here Ferris falls for a Jordanian nurse, Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani). In a movie like this, a love interest has two functions: eye candy for contrast and sympathy, hostage bait for the plot. (Yes, Mr. Ferris, you may kill many and risk your own life for your mission. But what if I told you we were going to, heh heh, rough up your girlfriend ...?)
Before the movie makes its détente with cliché, it offers what seem like keen insights into Arab and American cunning. DiCaprio anchors the film with his charm and commitment, and Strong, here as well as in Guy Ritchie's new film, RockNRolla, proves himself a charismatic, enigmatic secret keeper. Crowe is a bit of a disappointment and a distraction. He usually disappears persuasively into his roles, but here he wears the paunchy Hoffman like an off-the-rack suit from the Big & Tall Men's Shop.
In all, Body of Lies is a mixed bag of treats and trials, but it should be seen by audiences, and emulated and improved upon by other top directors. For all the mischief radical Islam has unleashed on the real world, it provides chances for tales of heroism and horror and all the gray areas in between. Whatever the box-office fate of earlier war-on-terrorism films, that's exactly what movies should explore.