Recent movies haven't done too well with current world politics. Iraq movies have proved a surefire way to disaster, seeming overly preachy (Stop-Loss) or just off-putting. In looking at Middle Eastern oil, Syriana won over many critics, but confused a lot of its audience with its myriad of plotlines.
In a new attempt to make a Middle East movie commercially viable, Hollywood has brought out Body of Lies (opens Friday), the most accessible of the bunch. Directed by Ridley Scott, who already put the '90s conflict in Somalia successfully onscreen in Black Hawk Down, Body of Lies shows the state of the War on Terror through two men: CIA operatives Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). Ferris is on the ground in Iraq, Jordan, and elsewhere, trying to use the alliances he makes there to stop a terrorist group that has been attacking Europe. Hoffman, back in the US, is always listening, watching, and running his own plays to undermine those alliances.
While their differences in strategy do provide for some interesting issues of trust and honor, Scott distinguishes the movie from Syriana by being action first, politics second. Explosions, car chases, and shoot-outs all appear liberally throughout. That's not the only way Scott uses the Hollywood playbook either. Despite the serious subject matter, there's plenty of comic relief, often from Crowe's outrageous performance. Ferris is even given a romantic interest, Jordanian nurse Aisha. In many ways, Body of Lies plays like 24: The Movie, using the War on Terror as a backdrop for some solid action and entertainment.
But if the tone may be light at times, the action is gritty enough to make up for it. Within the first twenty minutes alone, Ferris has to shoot an informant and leave an ally for dead, both on Hoffman's orders. The message is clear: in the CIA's game, there's no time for loyalty and everyone's expendable. The film also includes some rather graphic torture scenes that are hard to watch. And Scott's shooting style - shaky camera with lots of fast and jump cuts - adds to the realistic feel. When the movie goes for humor, it does so as relief.
The movie belongs to DiCaprio, and he's surprisingly believable as a top CIA agent. Crowe, on the other hand, often feels like more of a caricature. But the fault there likely lies more with the script than Crowe. Because Hoffman represents the Bush Administration's foreign policy - making bad decisions from far away while ignoring what's on the ground - his symbolic role often comes before character. Crowe also plays him as very over-the-top, which is good for comic relief but bad for believability. But to the movie's credit, he's never a villain, just crude and tactless. It's even possible he's doing the right thing, even when it ruins Ferris' plans.
The movie falters occasionally when it tries too hard to get its politics across. Hoffman's actions pretty effectively spell out his symbolic role, yet Ferris repeatedly spells it out for the audience. Talk of the Iraq War is mostly avoided, but comes up full force in a dinner scene between Ferris and Aisha's sister, ending when Aisha waves a white flag. But that moment is telling of Scott's approach to putting politics in the film. He may make you listen to some serious discussion, but there's enough action that it never feels didactic. So the movie ultimately falls somewhere between 24 and Syriana. It does have a message but is still far more enjoyable than it seems like it should be.