Eclectic master of cinema Ridley Scott returns to the genre of war films, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe leading the latest crop of megastars to be deployed in the Middle East.

Unlike Scott’s last foray into the US military with BLACK HAWK DOWN, his newest effort BODY OF LIES abandons the focus on the glory of the individual in the act of war and goes wholeheartedly with the ‘how fucked up is this?’ interpretation of the present conflict. Leonardo DiCaprio’s secret agent is promoted following a dangerous mission that saw him lose a trusted colleague but gain a whole bunch of useful data relating to a major terrorist network. He is subsequently relocated to Jordan where he becomes embroiled in a dangerous mission, an alliance with the head of the Jordanian secret police, a standard love affair, and a whole bunch of lies and withheld truths that have him questioning who is really in control.

I’m generally of the opinion that films about the present conflict are self-aggrandising at best and at worst irresponsible. They are either blatant propaganda films (LIONS FOR LAMBS), mundane announcements of personal political views (IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, STOP LOSS) or action films using conflict as a trendy USP to lure in audiences (THE KINGDOM). All of these films lack the distance from and, for the most part, the involvement in the conflicts to critically reflect on them and present an image that is any more interesting or useful than a historical or even totally imagined scenario which could provide just as much gore, patriotism, inner conflict, confusion or whatever these filmmakers want but without the ignorance and idiocy.

Nonetheless, I accept that there are arguments for such films. Firstly, some of the propaganda ones serve to make people think about these significant events rather than ignore them, which I admit is important (though I don’t admit that people can only be made to think my glossy movies about what’s happening now). Secondly, there are some scary things about the present conflict which lend themselves to dramatic device. It is the latter which is harnessed remarkably well by BODY OF LIES. The movie plays heavily upon the the fluctuating power games inherent in a war based on knowledge and cunning, and mocks all of our assumptions about uniformed soldiers and suited bureaucrats controlling the troops by populating the intelligence echelons with weird loners in tracksuits, family men, and sly politicians. And DiCaprio again shows his amazing talent for thrillers by playing the centrepiece of this format: the man stuck in the middle. A bullish survivor, a confused everyman, and possibly even the man who really knows the most, DiCaprio’s Agent Ferris is a fully formed character who refuses to conform to the stereotypes (positive and negative) of US forces that’re so frequently thrown around on the big screen.

What is best about this movie though, is that it ends on an ambiguous note. Refusing to condemn outright the invasive and controlling US agents in charge, and tacitly acknowledging the success of shady tactics on the ground, the story admirably treads the fine line that divides opinion on the conducting on the war on terror. What remains then is an inconclusive finale that, if anything, decries the futility of the whole endeavour in a way which neatly encapsulates the overwhelming majority of public opinion without undermining the values of those who see real things at stake in the conflict.

Leaving my foreign policy musings aside though, the film is well shot, well acted and a genuinely enjoyable thriller. Something that is tricky for a film in excess of two hours to achieve. The action sequences largely avoid the awful shaky camera work that has infused far too many releases in the last few years, and frequently allows us to appreciate complex urban pitched battles and distant explosions with a nice wide or overhead shot. Plus, Russell Crowe has finally realised he’s just an ordinary fat guy now, and taken a role he can accurately portray. His depiction, though in the shadow of DiCaprio’s performance, is a great show of the all-encompassing reach of technology and espionage, and an amusing commentary on how us busy Western folk juggle a career and a life (putting a child to bed whilst discussing terrorist movements on a bluetooth headset is at once funny and frightening).

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This article was first posted on November 19, 2008