Vicenarian Richard travels to Thailand and finds himself in possession of a strange map. Rumours state that it leads to a solitary beach paradise, a tropical bliss. Excited and intrigued, he sets out to find it.
Roger Ferris is a CIA operative in the Middle East; Ed Hoffman is his control at Langley. Cynicism is everywhere. In Amman, Roger works with Hani Salaam, Jordan's head of security, whose only dictum is "Don't lie to me." The Americans are in pursuit of a cleric who leads a group placing bombs all over Europe. When Hani rebukes Ed's demand that Jordan allow the Americans to use one of Jordan's double agents, Roger and Ed hatch a plan to bring the cleric to them. The plan is complicated by its being a secret from Hani and by Roger's attraction to a local nurse. Satellites and cell phones, bodies and lies: modern warfare. Written by
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I and the public know what all schoolchildren learn, those to whom evil is done, do evil in return. - W.H. Auden
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Amidst all the slam-bang, Body of Lies is actually a superb character study of two preening, bumbling CIA (presumably) agents trying to save the world in the Middle East. Roger Ferris (Di Caprio) is the agent on the ground, and Ed Hoffman (Crowe) is his remote-control boss in Washington. Their collective M.O. is to overreact and improvise at every turn, aided and abetted by their deep attachment to high-tech gadgetry and fundamental disregard for human lives. Their ally and foil, the Jordanian head of intelligence (Mark Strong), prefers more patient methods informed by a less skin-deep understanding of the people(s) involved.
All three are trying to penetrate and take out a shadowy, violent Islamic fundamentalist group and its leader. The plot is serviceable, the elements familiar, but it all works well to coax out Scott's and screenwriter William Monahan's critiques of the American way of unconventional war in the Middle East. The movie itself is funny, visually fine (Scott's touch hasn't deserted him), and engaging. Its center is the uneasy but highly entertaining partnership between Di Caprio and Crowe. At times verging on pure comedy (their semi-serious macho argument over which of them could beat up the other 10 years ago is a high point), the film never tips too far in this direction thanks to the two actors' easy skill and Scott's sure hand at maintaining a certain tone.
Is Body of Lies an antiwar statement? I don't think so - it's possible Monahan and Scott even think the Americans' grotesque imperial venture has a chance, if only they could learn a few lessons from the likes of the self-possessed Jordanian. But this seems unlikely. At the beginning, Crowe makes the very good point that it's precisely the Americans' mastery of (by?) their high-tech appurtenances that makes it nearly impossible for them to see their foes, who use much more down-to-earth techniques - like passing instructions by word of mouth. He then proceeds to ignore his own advice throughout the movie. Di Caprio rips into Crowe for his disregard of the lives of their local operatives, then goes on to thoughtlessly place in mortal danger an architect and an Iranian refugee nurse with whom he's infatuated.
They just don't learn. If they did, they wouldn't be who they are: the gallant spreaders of justice, democracy, and casual calamity. If that's what Scott and Monahan are trying to tell us, it's antiwar statement enough, the same news that Graham Greene brought us over 50 years ago with The Quiet American, updated and just as pertinent.
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