Wars and terrorism unfortunately never seem to end, a reminder of this 2008 movie by the great Ridley Scott, Body of Lies.
Moving through a tough world of espionage and counterintelligence, our protagonist is the stubborn Roger Ferris, a CIA agent serving in the Middle East.
Ferris is skilled and persistent, accustomed to handling the most delicate situations. Moreover, he knows and profoundly respects Islamic countries’ culture, religion, and language.
On the contrary, his superior, Ed Hoffman, commanding operations from the convenience of the United States, is a pragmatic and ruthless man who sees his job as a game to be won at all costs.
Although their relationship is complex, with moments of mutual distrust, they successfully find some documents revealing a house in Amman that may be the headquarters of the soldiers of Al-Saleem, a dangerous terrorist.
Unfortunately, the CIA does not have enough agents to monitor the numerous people going in and out of that house, so they must seek the help of a fellow Jordanian intelligence officer, Hani Salaam.
Salaam is an astute and resourceful man with a deep sense of honor and, therefore, profoundly despises American colleagues, especially Hoffman.
However, being younger and idealistic, Roger can win his trust and convince Salaam to cooperate with the Americans to flush out Al-Saleem before the next attack.
At the same time, constantly living in the Jordanian capital, Roger meets by chance Aisha, a nurse who treats him after being wounded in action.
Despite the vast cultural gap, there is an immediate attraction between them, and they begin dating, enraging her family and Roger’s American colleagues.
However, when Hoffman still decides to go his own way, all their lives will be in danger, and the young agent will be left alone in the hands of the terrorists.
Hanging on morality of right and wrong
Few figures in the cinematic world have the talent of Ridley Scott, who can jump between genres with great fluency while always remaining faithful to his dynamic and elegant style.
Whether action, drama, or romance, Scott masters every nuance, never grotesque in portraying explosive action scenes nor dull in drawing intricate sentimental dramas.
This 2008 movie is an emblematic example of such mastery because I believe that, in other hands, Body of Lies would be the classic thriller with a heroic protagonist running around like a madman for two hours trying to thwart bombings.
Instead, we have an array of tones that blend nicely into one another, from adrenaline to emotional tension, in a compelling espionage plot that obviously has its roots in post-9/11 politics and the war on terror.
Despite the sensitive topic, the movie, through the skill of screenwriters William Monahan and David Ignatius, avoids lapsing into patriotic rhetoric.
While far from the truth of a documentary, it finely maintains the balance, and there is a fair amount of criticism even of American foreign policy.
It’s not by chance the main character, played as usual brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio, indeed expresses an atypical fondness for Islamic rather than Western culture.
Highlighting cultural differences, yet not educationally or with moralistic bias because the task of making a judgment is just, in fact, to us viewers alone.
Finally, it is impossible not to draw a comparison with the Kingdom of Heaven, which posed the same political/religious questions in a medieval context; or the late brother Tony Scott‘s entertaining Spy Game.
The latter is definitely more in search of trivial awesomeness, but it remains a solid espionage movie quite close to this one in the ideology and ambiguous behavior of its leads.
The faces of a faceless war
Within thrillers, action and tension often leave little room for nuanced acting.
Along these lines, 2008’s Body of Lies follows the tradition of a movie with a tight plot full of dramatic events that unfold at a frenetic pace.
However, especially with a talent like Leonardo DiCaprio leading the cast, they don’t ignore the characters’ development in the least.
With few but intense eye-to-eye interactions and moments of silence, DiCaprio succeeds in shaping his character. A memorable example is the post-explosion scene shortly after the start, where the CIA agent is in the hospital, extracting with a mixture of resignation and grief bone fragments of his dead friend from his own flesh.
In just a few seconds, DiCaprio’s virtuosity and Scott’s careful direction are enough to outline the protagonist’s complex temperament.
Russell Crowe delivers an equally masterful performance, embodying a cynical official, distant from danger, who manipulates others’ lives from his cell phone.
This character plays an ambivalent role, acting as an antagonist while delivering small comedy moments with his paradoxical speeches about duty and power.
Mark Strong, playing Crowe’s Jordanian counterpart, on the other hand, shows the face of all those citizens of the Middle East unwittingly caught up in the chaos of terrorism.
A man of power, he nevertheless avoids abusing it unless his motives are compelling… as DiCaprio directly experiences when he gets into trouble because of his boss.
Amid this all-star cast, the delicate and charming Golshifteh Farahani deserves applause despite her less prominent role, tempering DiCaprio’s figure toward an ideal of chivalry.
In the rare moments when the plot focuses on her, away from political and terrorist plots, we get a broader picture of the female and family condition in the Middle East.