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‘Lies’ is more compelling off screen

POSTED: November 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.
/Warner Bros.

Russell Crowe, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio star in "Body of Lies" as CIA agents who differ on the strategy of the war on terrorism.

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The war on terror film genre continues, and as usual the results are mixed.

"Body of Lies" reunites the "Gladiator" team of director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe. Throw in Leonardo DiCaprio, and there’s so much testosterone flooding the screen you’ll barely notice the movie’s complete lack of heart.

Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) is an undercover CIA operative trying to infiltrate Islamic terrorist networks throughout the Middle East. Ferris works on the ground, constantly in harm’s way, while his case officer Ed Hoffman (Crowe) gives him orders via cell phone from back in Washington.

Hoffman clearly is intended as an indictment of those in America who are intent on preserving middle class normality regardless of the costs to the common man in other parts of the world. (The movie assumes such people exist.)

Hoffman orders bombings and executions as he eats cereal on his back porch, drops off the kids at school and attends soccer games.

Hoffman’s soccer-dad lifestyle and brutal ethics form a bewildering contrast. If he feels one of Ferris’ informants or contacts is no longer valuable, Hoffman either feeds him to the terrorists or orders his murder directly.

This constantly infuriates Ferris, who must form relationships with these contacts to do his work.

Ferris begins collaborating with Hani (Mark Strong), the head of Jordanian security, who takes a more subtle, gradual approach to combating terrorism than Hoffman. Ferris is thus caught between two powerful men and two ideologies.

Ferris also falls in love with an Iranian-born nurse, Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani). When Ferris follows custom and visits Aisha’s family early in their courtship, Aisha’s sister (Lubna Azabal) gives him an earful when he seems to take the plight of innocent Muslims flippantly.

Ferris serves as the surrogate for American viewers, and Hani, Hoffman and Aisha offer differing attitudes toward terrorism and American counterterrorism methods.

That’s about as deep as the movie gets, though, because in typical Ridley Scott fashion, the movie is too consumed with its own style to let us get close to the characters. We careen from one action sequence to the next too quickly to think about much at all.

And while the description of Ed Hoffman sounds intriguing, Crowe reduces the character to a caricature of the Big Dumb American. Crowe struts around sounding like Foghorn Leghorn, ordering executions as if he were a kid playing with toy soldiers. He’s a distraction.

Moviegoers seem to have strongly mixed opinions about DiCaprio, but he and Farahani rescue this movie from being completely pointless. "Body of Lies" is slick and deftly made but offers no reason to care about what we’re seeing, except for the humanity DiCaprio and Farahani bring to their roles.

Farahani actually is the first Iranian-based actress to appear in a Hollywood film since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. And she is now facing such harsh scrutiny from her government for simply appearing in the movie that she may not be allowed to safely return to her homeland.

Farahani’s real situation ultimately is more meaningful and compelling than the film.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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