POLITICAL WAR movies are like peddled knick-knacks on the streets of New York: they show up around every corner despite the fact that they’re universally disliked. And like the peddler who believes that people really want to buy plastic rosaries, cheap hip-hop, or cell phone cases, Hollywood keeps convincing itself that audiences want to see politically-charged war movies during politically-charged campaign seasons and politically-charged war fatigue. The past year has been littered with them: The Kingdom, Stop-Loss, Charlie Wilson’s War, In the Valley of Elah, and Jarhead are just a few.
None of those did well. Tom Hanks’s Charlie Wilson’s War was the most successful of the group, grossing just over $66.6 million, yet never surpassing Alvin and the Chipmunks (that elegant piece of filmmaking that hauled in over $217 million).
Add to the list of political war movie flops Body of Lies, the latest from “epic” war director Ridley Scott. Based on Washington Post columnist David Ignatius’ 2007 novel, it follows a cocky young C.I.A. operative named Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) as treks about the Middle East trying to capture the always-seen-but-never-heard terrorist, Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul). Ferris forms an alliance with the chief of Jordanian intelligence, Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), who believes truth and trust are the foundation of any relationship and that torture is an ineffective way to solicit information—unless you call it something else.
Ferris’s mentor, boss, and predecessor Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) is Hani’s opposite. He’s an overweight, overzealous maverick, willing to enrage those around him to get the job done. On multiple occasions his secrecy, lies, and win-at-all-costs mentality (all done from the comfort of Langley, Virginia and at the cost of his family) repeatedly compromise Ferris’ work. With a smooth southern drawl, Hoffman seems to be the incarnation of the media’s portrayal of the George W. Bush war room: he’s hawkish, old, and fat like Rove; cunning like Powell; southern and sometimes naïve like Bush; a micromanager like Rumsfeld.
Throughout Body of Lies, Ferris is torn between the dueling counterterrorism philosophies of the truth-loving Hani and his conniving, Machiavellian boss. When Ferris approaches Hani to request help capturing Al-Saleem, Hani accepts on one condition: “Never lie to me!” he demands repeatedly, with a stone-cold glare. Ferris obliges, and even shares his predecessor’s secretive, sensitive intelligence. Hani’s chief values are trust and cold, calculating patience, which Hoffman’s brash bullying casts into sharp relief.
Ferris follows random leads on Al-Saleem, mostly to humiliating, deadly failure (DiCaprio is decorated with fresh, gruesome battle wounds every few scenes). The arrogant, interfering Hoffman—who Crowe plays with smirking, self-assured crustiness—gives Ferris his last straw by blowing a crucial operation and compromising Ferris’ tenuous trust with Hani. Thinking his chances of executing an inside job are finished, Ferris devises a new, Hoffman-approved plan: create a fake rival terrorist network that will challenge Al-Saleem’s supremacy and draw him out. To avoid spoiling the story, all you need to know is that the C.I.A. eats some stale, dusty crow when it turns out that someone more skillful hacked their plot to get Al-Saleem first.
On paper, the story is interesting. On film, it’s slickly produced but one-dimensional, and unfolds under the false pretense of complexity. It takes the longest way possible to tell its one-act story, and as a result is disjointed, loaded with distracting, unsatisfying side-plots. There’s an uninteresting love affair between Ferris and an Iranian nurse and the brutal depictions of torture that culminate in naked political posturing (“Welcome to Guantanamo!”).
Considering Crowe’s and DiCaprio’s energetic performances, that’s a shame. Crowe is convincing as a washed-up handler, “saving civilization” on his headset as his wife looms in the background, as he drops his kids off at school, and as he attends little league soccer games. DiCaprio is a convincing mix of loyalty and bitterness, even though we have little idea how he got so bitter about his job. But the war-room speechmaking floating around this familiar plot makes Body of Lies just another action movie with inches-deep political undertones.
Body of Lies’ third-place finish at the box office suggests that even if they don’t mind the action-film conventions, audiences aren’t all that interesting in going to the movies to see more Iraq and more presidential campaign. Last weekend, Body of Lies came in behind Quarantine, the just-in-time-for-Halloween- horror film about an unknown disease documented by a news crew, and the number one Beverly Hills Chihuahua, the glitzy story of a privileged Chihuahua lost in Mexico that is itself one giant Paris Hilton allusion. I rest my case.
Jonathon M. Seidl is Patrol reporter in New York.
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