As this film began I wondered how I had missed a Ridley Scott film back in 2008, and by the midway point I remembered: there was nothing unique, compelling or memorable about it from the trailers, and by the end the same could be said for the film as a whole.
Could be. The film’s last forty minutes save it from mediocrity, but for a while there it looked like Scott somehow delivered a forgettable viewing experience, which is unfathomable.
From my dodgy memory, I remember in 2008 upon seeing the trailer, thinking the story was going to be about Leonardo DiCaprio’s CIA character being abandoned by his handler played by Russell Crowe in a foreign country and fighting to survive. The story is nothing like that, but what we get instead is something that looks good on paper but doesn’t quite gel in the film: that Russell Crowe’s CIA handler continually sabotages DiCaprio’s efforts at various operations in the Middle East due to his short-sightedness, impatience and arrogance. (allegory alert!)
Dicaprio is serviceable in the role of CIA operative Roger Ferris, Crowe is in full sleazy mode but a little over the top in his cartoonish portrayal of a largely useless CIA controller, and so we’re left with the dependable Mark Strong who gives the best performance as the head of Jordanian intelligence who becomes a sort of quasi-antagonsit to the CIA’s efforts to bag the villain of the film, a mini Bin Laden figure, though only because of Crowe’s buffonish attempts at enforcing authority upon another country’s intelligence service.
The biggest problem is that there is nothing substantial propelling the story, no distinct forward momentum, it meanders from one country to another, one confrontation after another. It’s all in the aid of capturing a villain responsible for bombings in Europe which we’re reminded of at regular intervals, and yet there’s still a lack of urgency in the direction and editing. Zero Dark Thirty had the same conceit and is set over a longer period of time, and yet it worked fantastically in keeping a decent pace throughout.
The last forty minutes of Body of Lies contain the best material, that of the idea of the CIA committing acts of staged (yet still morally ambiguous, if not outright reprehensible) terrorism, in order to lure the villain out of hiding. The reasoning being, that his ego will motivate him to seek out a new upstart terrorist organisation on the world stage. Of course unbeknownst to him, it’s actually Dicaprio and Crowe pulling the strings, planting fake evidence on a random civilian (whose only major crime is that he has sympathy for Al Qaeda) and blowing up their own military base to get the world media’s attention, and thus the villain’s.
The film would have been much stronger if the bulk of it had been about this morally grey area of using ‘innocent’ people as bait to capture terrorists. Though the film does have this theme running from the first act to the last, but like I say the film just doesn’t seem to gel well enough until the last half when the stakes and conflicts are more clear.