Body of Lies‘s shrewdest commentary on the ongoing War on Terror involves the sight of C.I.A. operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) getting shot at and smacked upside the head in various Middle Eastern locales while his U.S.-based boss, portly Southerner Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), delivers slightly condescending orders (“My boy…”) over the phone as he shuffles his son to and from the bathroom and takes his daughter to soccer games. The disconnect between those orchestrating and carrying out military operations is the most sound facet of Ridley Scott’s film, which (written by William Monahan, from a novel by Washington Post reporter David Ignatius) roots itself in the notion that our anti-terrorist endeavors in sandy, remote parts of the world are intrinsically frustrated by the inability of hard-nosed bureaucrats to comprehend the finesse, subtlety and patience necessitated by this new form of combat. Like last year’s more dim-witted (if also more kinetic) The Kingdom, however, Scott’s latest is first and foremost beholden to dull thriller conventions, the majority of which are staged with minimal flair and, worse still, cut off any further political commentary at the knees—unless, that is, one considers revelatory the fact that espionage involves deception.
In Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Syria, Ferris works to uncover the location of Osama bin Laden stand-in Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), a mastermind whose success at pulling off European marketplace bombings confirms Hoffman’s belief—espoused during a clunky, ideology-establishing intro speech—that “we are an easy target.” Hoffman immerses himself in on-the-ground missions through phones and hi-res video imagery from overhead drones, his techno-surveillance as detached as Ferris’s hand-to-hand combat is violently engaged. Ferris is Hoffman’s barely compliant pawn, instructed to betray contacts at his boss’s behest even when such a strategy is clearly shortsighted. Yet whereas Monahan’s script positions this dynamic as a sharp censure of the current administration’s operational methods, it never finds a way to use it for genre-excitement purposes. This is partly because Scott’s set pieces are competent in execution but bland in conception, but it’s also because, even though Hoffman’s clandestine, shady motives lead Ferris into numerous skirmishes and shootouts, the film never generates anything more than stock back-and-forth friction between the two men. Ferris is being manipulated by distant forces, but Body of Lies never convincingly posits real danger to its hero from either Hoffman or Middle Eastern gunmen, casting him as an often-bruised but never beaten beacon of American virtue, which turns any potential slam-bang sequences to mush.
Thus, while action-adventure conventions take precedence over socio-political analysis, visceral kicks are in short supply, a situation that throws the film’s tendencies toward stale misdirection and goofy melodrama into sharp relief. As its title implies, everyone is carrying out a ruse, but as with David Mamet’s work, the knowledge that everything is untrustworthy transforms the proceedings into a waiting game for eventual bombshells, which here turn out to be as predictable and tired as Scott’s flippant employment of hot-topic iconography (terrorist video manifestos, kneeling men in hoods). Aside from ditching the South African accent, DiCaprio reprises his Blood Diamond performance, all intense, frantic comportment and scant genuine inner life. Crowe, on the other hand, exudes a sinister strain of nonchalant cocky menace, even as he’s confined to dramatically inert scenes that simply require chatting on the phone from suburbia. Slightly more impactful is Mark Strong as Hani, a suave, dapper Jordanian intelligence bigwig with whom Ferris and Hoffman conspire. Yet despite insisting that Ferris always tell him the truth, Hani soon proves merely another of the script’s devices of deception, a narrative contrivance almost as phony as the relationship between Ferris and a fetching Muslim nurse that, leading to a preposterous Hollywood finale and coda, reveals Body of Lies to itself be a lie.