Body of Lies is the most satisfying Ridley Scott film since 1991's Thelma & Louise, but saying that is sort of like recommending the roast chicken at a restaurant because you probably won't vomit after you eat it. Scott, whose film Gladiator won the Best Picture in 2001, isn't meeting many quality standards these days. His recent failures include a religious-historical epic (Kingdom of Heaven), an enervating romantic comedy (A Good Year), and a superfluous crime picture (American Gangster). With Body of Lies, Scott tackles the global espionage thriller. And, while it is apparently too much to ask for any kind of coherent politics in this allegedly meaningful genre, Scott's film is too distracted and superficial in its visual and narrative strategies as well.
Body of Lies begins well. It juxtaposes the in-country, undercover exploits of Middle Eastern counterterrorism agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) with the dreary bureaucratic and domestic drudgery of his disheveled hedgehog boss, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). Ferris' spirit and patriotism are wearing down after years of close calls and morally questionable security choices, while Hoffman seems to draw strength from undermining his employee's tactics and methods.
Scott's initial scenes between these two weary representatives of the labor and management sides in the war on terror dig deeper than Scott's previous films. As the movie progresses, Ferris' cuts and bruises symbolize his infected psychic wounds, while Hoffman's carelessness as a supervisor and strategist starts to affect his children's behavior: After dismissing one Ferris phone call with a contemptuous "whatever," he hears his young daughter adopt the same cavalier pose before heading to a soccer game.
There's something sadly accurate about the way Hoffman constantly worries his phone earpiece like a rosary: He's the ultimate irritating, nonstop cell-phone businessman, only his distracted decision-making affects U.S. foreign policy strategies instead of financial markets. (Is there a difference between the two anymore?) But this significant insight about the nonstop work cycle and its toll on workers eventually drifts away in a haze of explosions, raids, and double-crosses.
Scott's hack status as a filmmaker derives from this innate incuriosity about human beings. He shoots his scenes as though he's browsing in a department store, glancing away and pirouetting his camera from one nice-looking scenario after another without showing genuine emotional investment in any of them.
What really turns Scott on is torture and violence. He's enamored of the fountains of maroon blood exploding from enemy chests and limbs and the carefully choreographed terrorist explosions that move the story along. In DiCaprio, though, he's found an actor who's capable of keeping up with such bloodletting and globetrotting. Because his youthful, handsome features keep him perennially young-looking (he's 33), DiCaprio's best roles have involved some level of masquerade and imposture; he's adept at playing charlatans and phonies in crisis mode.
As for his counterpart, well, is there a less exciting actor-director partnership in movies than the Crowe-Scott alliance? Both actors are left to flail about in vain as the eye of Scott's camera and the omniscient eye in the sky watch and record without reflecting on anything.
Body of Lies