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10.15.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Francois Duhamel
SUPERWIDE SCREEN : Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio attempt to squeeze into the same frame in 'Body of Lies.'

Spy Story

Ridley Scott fires at will in 'Body of Lies.'

By Richard von Busack


There is something catchy about Wonkette.com's description of columnist David Ignatius as "op-ed furniture." He is the Washington Post columnist who still (as of Sept. 17, 2008) backs the surge, and the wisdom of W and Gen. Petraeus: "They didn't win in Iraq, but they created the possibility of an honorable exit." (It's like Fred Willard's description of a vicious hound being hauled out of competition in Best of Show: "He's being led away in disgrace, but he's still a champion.") Fortunately, there are always novels to reflect an unbiased, if really out-of-it, newspaperman's misgivings about his country's warpath. Based on Ignatius' novel, Ridley Scott's Body of Lies emphasizes the importance of on-the-ground intelligence gathering vs. the CIA's spying from the skies. The film's cleverest bit is a relatively low-tech kidnapping; using dust and diversion, terrorists outwit all the spy planes at the United States' command. The plot takes the form of a policier: Gruff old cop tries to teach young cop not to care so much, though ultimately the old man's cynical methods repel the younger idealist. And yet the old cop was right all along in understanding that there are no half-measures with criminals. The endless ethical conversation can be continued in the sequel.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Roger Ferris, an old Arab hand with beard and baseball cap. Currently on assignment in Baghdad, he is developing an informer. The incident goes wrong, thanks to home-office interference; the air support brought in to scare off the terrorists merely explodes Ferris' driver. Ferris is then transferred to a new effort in Amman to work with the saturnine Jordanian intelligence officer Hani (Mark Strong, the only good thing about this movie). The debonair but sinister Jordanian spook agrees to help the United States with its main problem of "not enough good Arabs to chase bad Arabs." Ferris starts a shy romance with an Iranian/Palestinian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani). This romance is supposed to be more awkward in the book, but it's awkward enough onscreen. First a meet-cute over a rabies shot, and then over dinner Ferris allows that mistakes were made and says we would all like to have the war over as soon as possible. Despite the sensible misgivings Ferris has about the intelligence coming from the home office, he helps set up an unwitting Arab businessman as the leader of a pretend terrorist group, in order to draw out the actual mad bombers.

As his folksy control, Ed Hoffman, Russell Crowe is paunchy, drawling and dusted with gray powder. Ferris is in constant contact via earphone with Hoffman as the latter drives around the suburbs and takes his children to soccer practice. The telephone conferencing, as well as the scenes of Hoffman watching Ferris on spy-satellite screens, keeps signifying that this is a movie about moviemaking. Indefatigable director Scott is so deep in the industry that he cannot conceive of any field of human endeavor that isn't carried out as if on the Paramount lot. He pitches everything at the level of bluster of a producer barking at a bunch of his employees. If Scott were making a film about pediatricians, it would still come down to a lot of level stares, nut-cutting and butting heads.


Movie Times BODY OF LIES (R; 128 min.), directed by Ridley Scott, written by William Monahan, based on the novel by David Ignatius, photographed by Alexander Witt and starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, plays countywide.


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