Title: Body of Lies
Year: 2008
Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller
Play time: 2h 8min
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriters: William Monahan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong

The pivotal line in Ridley Scott’s remarkably insightful Body of Lies comes about two-thirds of the way through the film. CIA Agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), hot on the trail of an Islamic extremist terrorizing the West with suicide bombings, has grown fed up with the meddling of his American-stationed superiors, who have no conception of operational realities in the Middle East and only seem capable of botching his missions. Angry and ready to call it quits, he yells into the phone at his boss: “This is not working.”

Goddamn right. Body of Lies is easily the smartest film to date about the post-9/11 “war on terror,” incisively honing in on the central problem with the way it has been prosecuted: incompetence. Scott and screenwriter William Monahan, working from a (less political) book by David Ignatius, don’t reassert the boilerplate liberal solution of cultural engagement and mutual understanding (see, e.g., Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s facile Traitor). Instead, they’ve made an elegant, exciting film that encapsulates the central lesson of the last seven years. If you’re going to invade a country, and set into motion an elaborate ground operation to ferret out terrorists and extremists, you should fucking know what you’re doing.

Have you read Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekharan? You should. It tells, in infuriating detail, the story of how Republican ideologues, armed with partisan fervor and an uncompromising neoconservative directive, botched the post-invasion reconstruction of Iraq to the point where there may be no fixing it, not for decades. They walled themselves into one of Baghdad’s poshest neighborhoods, completely oblivious to everything happening in the rest of the country, and attempted to rule like short-time monarchs while eating burgers and French fries served by US government contractors. It was an operation driven by cronyism and careerism. Most of its lower-level employees were lobbying for positions with the GOP establishment, while the bosses got their jobs as a reward for their loyalty. Few of them had any idea what problems faced Iraqis or how to solve them, and those who did couldn’t get the people or resources to make any headway.

Later in Body of Lies, Ferris suggests to Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), his superior at the CIA, that he may not want to return from the Middle East – he likes it here. Hoffman’s response is incredulous: “Nobody likes the Middle East. There’s nothing here to like.” Throughout the film, Scott had pointedly juxtaposed Ferris’s deep, often terrifying field work in Iraq, Jordan and elsewhere with Hoffman on his headset, barking instructions while sending his son off to school or hanging out in his backyard. Those instructions, more often than not, got people (usually Arabs) killed, compromised long-play operations, or fatally betrayed the trust of invaluable local allies like Jordanian intelligence chief Hani (Mark Strong), whom Ferris addresses with the honorific “Hani Pasha.” When Hoffman would deign to show up, he could manage only to bully the locals. But he had his short-term objectives. Bombs were going off. He had to do something.

The film’s plotting is a bit fanciful – too much happens in too short an interval for this to be a truly plausible take on modern espionage – but it’s convincing anyway, thanks in part to Leonardo DiCaprio’s intense lead performance; the guy’s really become a riveting presence and a true movie star. The screenplay has a knack for subtle gestures that sent chills down my spine: when Ferris and his local compatriot have to make a violent escape and need help from their CIA overlords, they scream into their satellite phones, “We have valuable intel in our possession!” Why? The movie doesn’t say, but we can guess: because otherwise, the CIA may not come to their rescue.

The rest of the credit goes to Ridley Scott, whose work behind the camera demonstrates what it means for a Hollywood movie to be superbly directed: this is one of the year’s most elegant and fluid films. The often rapid-fire editing is absolutely seamless, the action is lucid, and even the cuts to black, marking Body of Lies’ dozens of transitions from country to country, seem thought out. There’s inspired work by Mark Strong as the Jordanian intelligence czar, and a rousing, memorable musical score by longtime Scott collaborator Marc Streitenfeld. This is mainstream craftsmanship of the highest order.

I feel obliged to note that the title makes sense in the novel (it’s a pun), but the movie cuts out the explanation and leaves it dangling. At some point, there’s just too much to cover, and Body of Lies is constraint by its two-hour adventure film format. But it is one of the few post-9/11 films to know what to do with Middle East politics. Though indirect, it’s also the most ringing Barack Obama endorsement Hollywood has issued. It’s a godsend: an exciting, brainy, relevant thriller.

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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