Say this for Ridley Scott – he makes my job easy. His garishly inefficient directing style (Why do in two shots what you can do in five?) works as a cinematic canary in a coal mine. When a scene is successfully building tension (à la Blade Runner), it’s whistle while you work all the livelong day. Yet you’ll know the instant Tweety starts sucking gas a la American Gangster).
Watching his new spies-and-terrorists thriller Body of Lies, you get a galloping gulp of each. The first two acts move swiftly and explosively through the inside baseball of the Middle Eastern intelligence game. It develops an intelligent story based in the technological reality of modern spycraft and the methods ancient cultures find to resist. Then in the third act, the mandatory love story – carried down on stone tablets from Mount Screenwriter – unwraps its interest and credibility.
The bird falls flat to the floor. Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) has had enough of the spy game, but he’s too busy getting wounded to notice it yet. Scouting about Iraq with a pistol and a shaggy beard, he runs into information about a terrorist cell in Jordan executing a series of bombings in Europe. As Ferris moves to Jordan to take over the investigation, he gets stuck between his shady boss (Russell Crowe), always one cell phone away in Washington, and the scary, urbane head of Jordanian intelligence (Mark Strong).
Things get even more complicated when he meets the nurse of his dreams (Golshifteh Farahani) over a rabies shot. When doesn’t a needle in the stomach mean love? The screenwriter is William Monahan (from the David Ignatius novel), a man whose talent lets him get away with things that he shouldn’t. His intricate screenplay bears considerable resemblance to his script for The Departed – sticking tough-guy Leo in the middle of a game of shifting alliances among the spymasters. More notably, it deals with the same conflict between hierarchical systems of power (organizational charts) and personal systems of power (friendships and tribal ties).
The American spies have the satellites, yes, but the Jordanians have the intimate system of family allegiances. The right mother can be more powerful than billion-dollar technology. Playing Ferris’ personal loyalty to the nurse against his professional loyalty to the mission, the film ultimately tries to personalize this conflict in its third act. Characters act in entirely unlikely ways. Until then, Body of Lies sleekly burns its pulp and pace – one of Scott’s better recent efforts. I’m not sure DiCaprio ever gives a complete, consistent performance. There are too many times when you feel his acting.
Occasionally, you want to help him sound out the words. But he usually knocks down his big scenes, and so he does here. This is the first time in a while that Crowe so willingly sinks into a character. I appreciate his performance. Each new “sand movie” has been met by the public with indifference and exhaustion of real life. With Scott, DiCaprio, and Crowe, Body of Lies is one of the most star-studded to date. Its fortune will be interesting to see.