Skip to main content

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies
(2008)

(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.


Ridley Scott and politics really shouldn’t mix. Black Hawk Down found him firing on all cylinders as a director, albeit in service to a state-sanctioned rendition of what went down in Mogadishu (the heroic Americans against the oncoming hordes of unfriendly natives). Kingdom of Heaven had Orlando Bloom attempting to bring peace to the Middle East by way of laughably contemporary values. Here, Scott and screenwriter William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) are, to paraphrase Hans Gruber, following the terrorist movie rule book note by note, such that all you really need to know is Leo’s field agent has to track down a terrorist cell and is motivated for all the right reasons while his boss (Crowe) is a cynic much readier to get others’ hands dirty than his own.


It should probably be no surprise that the movie is essentially a government promo piece, since David Ignatius, who wrote the novel of the same name, is a columnist for the Washington Post, that publication of undiluted journalistic values (just ask Kevin Shipp). He's entirely sympathetic to the cause ("CIA officials put up with a degree of public abuse that would be unimaginable in the case of military officers") and so wants to further it in any way he can ("Even the CIA has a soft heart" says one of his characters). Accordingly, the subject matter attempts to strike a chord by addressing heartland issues; the locations may be Iraq and Jordan, but these terrorists are planting bombs in Europe (a good thing the Americans are there to save them). 


The only qualms Body of Lies shows regarding the War on Terror aren't in respect of its causes or rectitude, but how the fight is fought, so good Middle Easterners are the ones showing an almost British gentility and cunning (funnily enough, because Jordanian Hani Salaam is played by Mark Strong, all eccentric "My dears" when addressing Leo, tailored suits and – as pretty much every review noted – unswerving suavity). Salaam’s methods are effective, and Leo, being a cultured sort who learns the local language and likes the local people, has respect for him that contrasts entirely to Crowe’s china shop bull (he takes his calls to Leo while giving his son toilet training). The CIA as a flawed, fallible outfit is part of the official script of course (as well as being accurate), since it fits with the idea that it is necessary but cannot do everything (so requires ever more funding).


The illusion of complexity created by Leo being stuck in the midst of others' agendas, thus leaving him jaded and disillusioned with the apparatus (I'm guessing this is why he thought Body of Lies was a throwback to The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor – I mean, really?), is consistently fought by Scott's stylistic choices, all desert panoramas of billowing dust spread by convoys of cars, black helicopters sweeping stylishly by, Enemy of the State-style satellite (and drone) surveillance, and action sequences chock full of slow-motion and blood squibs. The present and correct tropes are all here – suicide bombers, torture, including a conversation on how it doesn’t work, lecturing a terrorist on how his behaviour conflicts with the Koran – ensuring a pervading sense that this is re-treading a well-worn furrow, and the promise of starry names does nothing to alleviate the fatigue.


Matthew Alford in Reel Power read the movie as "not about the legitimacy of US actions, which are taken as read, but rather how we can make better use of foreigners to implement the War on Terror more effectively" – "What we need to do learn to get it right" as the film’s writer David Ignatieff puts it (on the DVD commentary).


Crowe's actually pretty good, making Ed Hoffman a cocky blowhard morally and empathically detached from process and results, for whom expendability is a byword; his casual approach to dealing with Leo’s Ferris or Jordanian politics rather oversells the point, though. He's a caricature, every bit as much as Ferris is a ridiculous man child, in the era before Leo was effectively delivering adult roles but trying his best to fill their shoes, with the aid of as many props (goatee, baseball cap, tooth pick permanently in place) he could muster. The general failings of the characterisation are only underlined with by his romance with nurse Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani, memorable in the recent Paterson), leading to a risible "kidnap" plotline. There’s also an early role for Oscar Isaac, unfortunately killed off in the first act.


Monahan substitutes hangdog jadedness for any kind of insight ("Nobody’s innocent in this shit, Ferris"), but I don’t think audiences were ever buying into this faux hand-wringing. Give them a jingoistic real hero with no nods to the cause of the conflict itself and there might be a response (American Sniper), but this kind of fare satisfies no one (still, Ridley just can’t keep away from the region, as Exodus: Gods and Kings would prove). At one point, Ferris tells terrorist Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul) that one of his men is working for the Head of Jordanian Intelligence, and since the Head is working for the US, that means Al-Saleem really works for the US Government. He means it as a wind-up, mid finger-crushing, but it’s about as close as Body of Lies gets to what’s really going on. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Something something trident.

Aquaman (2018)
(SPOILERS) If Aquaman has a problem – although it actually has two – it’s the problem of the bloated blockbuster. There's just too much of it. And the more-more-more element eventual becomes wearing, even when most of that more-more-more is, on a scene-by-scene basis, terrifically executed. If there's one thing this movie proves above all else, it's that you can let director James Wan loose in any given sandpit and he’ll make an above-and-beyond castle out of it. Aquaman isn't a classic, but it isn’t for want of his trying.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vi…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Charles Dickens would have wanted to see her nipples.

Scrooged (1988)
If attaching one’s name to classic properties can be a sign of star power on the wane (both for directors and actors), a proclivity for appearing in Christmas movies most definitely is. Just look at Vince Vaughn’s career. So was Bill Murray running on empty a mere 25 years ago? He’d gone to ground following the rejection of his straight-playing The Razor’s Edge by audiences and critics alike, meaning this was his first comedy lead since Ghostbusters four years earlier. Perhaps he thought he needed a sure-fire hit (with ghosts) to confirm he was still a marquee name. Perhaps his agent persuaded him. Either way, Scrooged was a success. Murray remained a star. But he looked like sell-out, sacrificing his comedy soul for a box office bonanza. He’d seem even more calculating seven months later when tired sequel Ghostbusters II emerged. Scrooged is guilty of exactly the kind of over-sized, commercially cynical production this modern retelling of A Christmas Carol (only partial…