Three years ago, Ridley Scott directed a picture about a well-meaning young Westerner sent to fight in a war in the Middle East, where he was caught between a manipulative supervisor on his side and enraged Muslims on the other. But audiences didn't take to the moral ambiguity of “Kingdom of Heaven,” which suggested that both sides in the Crusades had some claim to call themselves “righteous.”
Scott has recycled this plot in “Body of Lies,” but he's been canny enough to forego the balanced outlook. Now the good guys are clearly defined – they're stopping jihadists, who have become the safest movie villains to use over the last decade – and the other side doesn't get to plead its case, except in slogans that sound like lunacy. No doubt the results at the box office will be better, but “Kingdom” remains the more interesting film.
This time, the protagonist who loses his innocence is Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), who's tracking a group of bombers and trying to save an Arab informant who wants to come to the United States. Roger's unemotional boss, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), wants to squeeze the informant dry and discard him. In fact, it'd be helpful if the guy got assassinated, so Ed could track his killers to their headquarters.
This sets up the basic structure of the film. Ferris tries to engage people on a human level, whether they're the shrewd head of the Jordanian intelligence office (Mark Strong) or a nurse who agrees with trepidation to take him home for dinner (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani). Hoffman's Realpolitik approach reduces everyone to the same value: They help suppress terrorism, or they're irrelevant. And when they stop helping, they're expendable.
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Perhaps because the writer is William Monaghan, whose unsubtleties and improbabilities marred “The Departed,” the script for “Body of Lies” leaves too many questions unanswered. The story turns to melodrama in the second half, and you have to wonder even from the start why Roger seems so naïve about the CIA's attitude. If this is his first important task, how did someone so green get such a crucial job? And if he's worked with Hoffman regularly, as the script implies, why is he stunned by his chief's callousness and inhumanity?
If this were a John le Carré novel (or a good adaptation of one), all the characters would get a chance to defend philosophies and political positions articulately. But in this simplified world, we're meant to sympathize with Roger, naïve though he seems for an operative in his 30s. (I sympathized more with the suave Jordanian, who clung to a bit of idealism while inevitably operating with more common sense.)
The romance seems tacked on as a way to humanize this character; there's no reason the nurse would take up with a brash, secretive American who won't tell her family how he makes a living. DiCaprio gives his usual intense and focused performance, but there's no gentler side to him.
Strong seizes the screen whenever he's around, and Farahani makes a strong English-language debut in an underwritten character. But it's the relentless Crowe, blunt and callous and single-minded, who makes the strongest impression.
We're left at last to wonder whether people like Ed Hoffman are really determining our security policy overseas – and whether that's a good thing, when he seems so contemptuous toward the part of the world he's assigned to investigate. But those are subjects for a different and more complex motion picture.