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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…