IT was an adaptation of the eponymous Body of Lies: A Novel, the spy-thrilleron Middle East espionage by The Washington Post columnist David Ignatiuas and written by William Monahan, the man who wrote the The Departed. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe in the lead roles as intelligence officers, with Crowe playing the old dog, superior; disconnected, Washington office bureaucrat with a false sense of the ways of the spy game in the Middle East, and DiCaprio; playing the pup, who possesses a clear albeit idealistic understanding of how the region operates, borne out of his time in the field and a respect for the ways of the region’s culture. So it was safe to assume by the standard equations of modern film that it would at the very least, be just above mediocre. It wasn’t. Sadly.
Though the film wasn’t bad, its great promise was squandered in writing that failed to flesh out the relationships between the principal characters or provide a clearer overview of the problems and tensions in the region in regards to intelligence gathering and counterterrorism efforts, after seemingly slipping on that yoke. Instead it ended up placing all of the early drama squarely on the two C.I.A. agents’ differing perspectives on the matter, and some sticky situations. And that is where many of my problems with it begin. The film appeared to be fully going down the path of being an ambitious look at the reality of the situation facing the nation with regards to the front lines of counterterrorism, with an equally enthralling intraagency spy-versus-spy work relationship story to tell.
There was even a moment where the film could have made a lasting comment on the use of torture, but did not, using only one line on the matter and reducing it to window dressing, when torture has been proven to be anything but window dressing in this world. Nor did the film provide the perspective of the average citizen in the midst of the chaos between the jihadists and the very tip of the American government’s sword, in any real way. This is while there was at least one character that could have done so, by my count, only shown once; in a dinner conversation between the mother of DiCaprio’s characters’ love interest, Aisha, played by Golshifteh Farahani and DiCaprio’s, Roger Farris, the University of North Carolina alumnus turned field operations officer.
What all school children learn.
To whom evil is done. Do evil in return.
Problems with the love interest aspect of the storyline also crops up, since the true nature of the relationship was never expounded on past their initial attraction and their two dates, despite her presence in Roger Farris’ life becoming integral to the plot’s arc. Even the tensions of an American man who works for the United States government and is seeing a young Arab woman in a less than open country (by Western standards) like Jordan, and the potential struggles of such a pairing, were barely mentioned, though done so in a nuanced way that seemed to downplay what I would believe to be far more palpable societal reactions, considering the current political climate.
All of these things: of limited perspectives, overall myopic writing and the lack of providing a clear sense of the problems and cross tensions in the world of Western-styled hardline approaches to counterterrorism espionage and for lack of a better term: “people savvy, human-based Middle Eastern intelligence and counter terrorism,” ultimately adds Body of Lies to a growing roster of disappointing Hollywood attempts at dealing with the complexity of the in-the-shadows-war of American intelligence and counterterrorism policy post-9/11, that was seen in everything from The Kingdom (somewhat), Redacted, Rendition to the show 24, at times. (Though, to Hollywood’s credit, the Bob Baer story in Syriana was a formidable showing. Ironically, Syrianna was one of the earliest looks at the problems we face in the region and was based almost wholly on C.I.A. agent Robert Baer’s own writings.)
Now the goal of Body of Lies may not have been to be a profound explication piece on the political matters or to even take a political stance, but its setting, our times, and its expressed authenticity for mood and attention to the general detail of how that world works and looks, made it seem as though the film dropped the ball — not rising to the level of its settings’ implications. It seemed to dumb down the complexities. Even if it were not meant to be political, by its very subject it is, and should have been more honest and robust in its approach, avoiding sins of omission. The film’s apolitical stance, becomes a curious, noticeably absent choice as a result.
Granted, Hollywood has failed in almost every flick it has trotted out dealing with the matter of post 9/11 counterterrorism, primarily because it is so very complex an issue, that requires a sense of regional history that begins about 20 years before 9/11 (if not longer) to be established in the narrative in some way, and the mentioning of how geopolitical economics, oil money flows and big business relationships affect the goals of counterterrorism, as it somewhat did in Syrianna. Further, the way that this element of the Global War on Terror is fought and how it operates is so muddled to even those inside fighting by the most clandestine means, that those on the outside (perhaps) could never fully tell a lucid story about it, yet. (Which is why Baer’s writings forming the basis of Syrianna helps that film to excel where others have failed at being honest, non-polemic accounts.)
Body of Lies was not a terrible treatment, but neither was it as ambitious as it should have been, nor did it do justice to the lead actors’ skills or the themes it almost explored, but somehow managed to fall short of. The film even begins with a W.H. Auden quote that to anybody paying attention to the state of affairs in the world, or has any sense of the covert realms the movie deals with, would know that it was supposed to drive the theory behind the movie. The quote, which dealt with violence begetting violence exponentially, as a tact, seemed to be about everything from state-sanctioned torture to the logic of fighting small groups who hide among innocents and the consequences of policy because of that (i.e. indiscriminate roundups of 18-35 year old Arab males, in these regions by American forces), but even in the quote’s usage in the film, it seems to not fully work. It is unclear if the quote was to be applied to the particular brand of terrorism that the movie addresses or the American policy towards it, or what I believed to be the target: both sides of the conflict and the stalemate that would be visited, in their cycle of violence.
While my assessments deal with the film’s shortcomings, the film does manage to entertain. Crowe is funny at times with an indistinct, Virgina-esque, Southern accent and DiCaprio is utterly believable as a field operations man in a grueling, nasty situation, who can see that just because there are bad people in his line of work, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t also good people. The film, aside from the politics and confusion of the situation it sets itself in, but somehow manages to not embrace, is still interesting and does provide glimpses of the psyche of several archetypes on the intelligence side of the War on Terror. Although, the confusion of that world can also be summed up in a plot that is also less than clear. And while its undefined romance aspect had some flaws, it did provide some sweet moments and humanity to an otherwise extremely inhuman situation and world. The film could have become an epic on the cloak-and-dagger policy and the political aspects of the war as it possessed all of the personal, surrounding societal elements to do so. That it did not, and seemed to run away far from them in a subtle and not so subtle way, made the film disappointing.
Body of Lies is in theaters now.