Dir: Ridley Scott. US. 2008. 129 mins.
Ridley Scott employs all his cinematic tricks to craft a heart-thumping action thriller in Body Of Lies, which blends thematic elements of Syriana, Rendition and The Kingdom and then churns them through a high octane Bourne blender. More gripping to watch in the moment than enjoyable to recall at its end, the film is bound to chalk up some heavweight box office numbers courtesy of stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, but it's far from a 'four quadrant' movie. Young men will respond to the earsplitting intensity, but many women and older audiences might be turned off by the subject of terrorism, harrowing images of suicide bombings and graphic scenes of torture and violence.
Domestic box office numbers are likely to be in the same range as Black Hawk Down and American Gangster ($110m-$130m), while international numbers might be as great if not greater - DiCaprio's last two films, Blood Diamond and The Departed, were bigger hits overseas than in North America.
Scott and his brilliant editor Pietro Scalia are expert at creating a visual patchwork of images that maximizes the tension in every scene. Here, even more than in Syriana or the third Bourne movie, communication is key - on omnipresent TV broadcasts, through cellphones and SMS texts, internet and email. Most effectively, the film-makers shoot extensively from the air to emulate the Predator surveillance system which tracks activities on the ground from unmanned aircraft. The fact that the CIA in Virginia can watch live aerial images of their agents walking down a street in Jordan or Dubai is as technologically wondrous as it is morally disturbing; for Scott it's a chance to create elaborate action sequences from multiple cameras on the ground as well as from the air.
The film starts as CIA near-east chief Ed Hoffman (a portly Crowe) reads out a report about the enormous challenges of fighting the war on terror, and then moves to Iraq where his top intelligence man Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) is working on the ground to ferret out troublemakers. The pressure is on to locate extremist leader Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul) who has begun a wave of terrorist attacks on western cities.
Following a lead to Jordan, Ferris enlists the support of the supersmooth Hani Salaam (Strong, creating the film's most memorable characterisation), head of Jordanian intelligence, and the two keep watch on a safehouse for jihadists in Amman, but when Hoffman blows the operation, Ferris is thrown out of the country. That's when he and Hoffman devise an audacious scheme to flush out Al-Saleem - by creating an imaginary terrorist organization.
Respect for human life on both sides is minimal and, just as much as the terrorists, Scott goes to some lengths to show the Hoffman and Ferris characters causing the deaths of innocent people without a second thought. Ferris may be portrayed as having a conscience - he even has a love interest - but his dark work for his country always comes first.
Despite the admirable moral ambiguity, however, there's something discomfiting about the notion that the middle eastern conflicts can now act as fodder for expensive Hollywood action movies. A sequence in which the Noordermarkt in Amsterdam is obliterated by a suicide bomber, causing over 100 deaths, feels almost pornographic.
Scott Free Productions
De Line Pictures
Charles JD Schlissel
Donald De Line
Based on the novel by David Ignatius