In BODY OF LIES Hollywood continues its attempt to examine the War on Terror while still making it palatable for a mass audience. It so very desperately wants to be this year’s SYRIANA, and for the first hour or so does a credible job of exploring the complexity of current events before succumbing to the sweet temptation of simplicity and becoming just another cops and robbers opus. One with lofty dialectics, to be sure, but a plot that with little manipulation could be centered on the Mafia.
The Osama Bin Laden stand-in for this film goes by another name, but there can be little doubt who is meant by this extremist mastermind who blows up targets in Europe, much to the consternation of the CIA. That august body is represented by Ed (Russell Crowe), a paunchy and arrogant guy who is only too happy to explain why his approach to solving the War on Terror is the only way possible. He has the ear of those in power, but he is less convincing with Roger (Leonardo DiCaprio), his crack agent on the ground in the Middle East. Roger is an anomaly. He actually speaks Arabic and has gone to the trouble of understanding the culture in which he operates. Ed hasn’t. Ed is the symbol of American arrogance and ignorance, the combination that succeeds in making things worse rather than better, alienating those who would like to help. Roger would like to save the guy who wants to turn over information rather than blow himself up. Ed has other plans. Roger would like to work with the Jordanian intelligence minister (Mark Strong who steals the show with his world-weary panache), Ed arrives in person to emphasize the point to Roger and the dashingly urbane minister, why that’s not going to happen. Even though the Minister has better intelligence and is willing to share it with Roger, which is not something Ed makes a rule of doing. Even when the Minister not only mouths the platitude that torture doesn’t work, but also demonstrates a strategy that does.
For the first hour, the interaction between Ed and Roger via cell phone, as Ed drops his kids off at school in the U.S., and Roger dodges bullets on the other side of the planet is a tidy summary of everything that is wrong with American foreign policy, including the nifty big screens at CIA headquarters that keep tabs on Roger thanks to the even niftier hi-tech spy planes and satellites in use.
The plot devolves into a potboiler, reduced to a series of sequences wherein DiCaprio and Crowe can posture with the requisite machismo. DiCaprio by being brutalized, Crowe by wielding a fearsome power just by peering over his glasses. A preposterous love story is thrown in, along with series of rabies shots for Roger, which drags the action to a standstill and provides an all too pat plot device for later. That later also includes a devilishly complicated scheme that takes the film away from being a credible political thriller and into the heady and fantastical realm of the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE series, and with just as much gravitas, thereby undercutting the smarts of the first act. There’s even a charmingly eccentric, painfully clichéd techno-geek, just like the one in the Laura Croft franchise tossed in for atmosphere.
BODY OF LIES is competent enough in its mediocrity when blowing things up and setting the testosterone-driven leads against one another. It’s obviously in love with techno-gadgets, which is fine, but it’s also in love with its sense of discovery in ideas and situations that have been covered better elsewhere.