Since September 11, the sheer number of films that have been set in or focused on events in the Middle East has been formidable. There have been some hits and misses during that time, and now we have the latest entry Body of Lies. On the "pros" side, the film has an impressive pair of top line stars and is directed by an Oscar winner. The only "con" that comes to mind is that Jamie Foxx was in a film that was kind of like this, so I guess the only question to answer is whether or not the film is closer to Syriana or The Kingdom.
William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) adapted the David Ignatius novel that Ridley Scott (American Gangster) directs. The main focus of attention is Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed), an undercover CIA agent whose work takes him from Iraq, where he discovers a surplus of intelligence on a terrorist cell, to Jordan. He is assigned there by his handler Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe, Gladiator), who instructs Roger to meet with the head of Jordanian intelligence, a man named Hani (Mark Strong, RocknRolla). It's there that Roger advises Hani of his intentions to try and find the head of a terrorist group responsible for bombings in Great Britain and the Netherlands which have killed hundreds of innocent people. This involves Hani's cooperation, which Roger readily accepts, though Roger is unaware of the hidden plans that Ed runs around the both of them as the film progresses. When Hani finds out about these plans he's justifiably upset, but Roger quickly mends fences, and decides to propose a plan to Ed. They decide to create a fictitious terrorist leader using circumstantial evidence. They hope this accomplishes two things; both to restore Hani's trust, but also to flush out this other terrorist leader.
What was interesting to me about this film was the way it was more centered on the Middle Eastern people than anything else. Crowe is Leo's handler and while he was all over the publicity surrounding the film, he's more on the periphery, yet Scott does an excellent job at keeping him just on the radar enough to make the character relevant. As for Leo, in Body of Lies he does some subtle changes to his face (contacts, facial hair and I think some fake teeth) to go along with a Southern accent. Roger is acutely aware of his surroundings and knows that at the end of the day that whatever he does in Jordan can meet with repercussions from Hani if he crosses a line. That's assuming he makes it out of whatever jam he's facing as well. This kind of respect, even subservience from Americans hasn't been seen that often in films, and was surprising to view. In another scene, Roger takes up a friendship with an Iranian doctor (played by the striking Golshifteh Farahani) and the two go to a Palestinian village. At first, the joking about Roger's look from Palestinian women is cute and a little funny, but the Palestinian men later are less than impressed with him. Seeing that rage was almost palpable and definitely felt uneasy to see.
Sadly though, those nuances remain in the background because of the way the story is laid out. The tactics Roger and Ed utilize in trying to apprehend this terrorist leader, a man named Al-Saleem, involves a plot that becomes more convoluted as the movie wears on, to the point where I almost had to stop and review at one point. While Roger and the doctor was an interesting subplot to watch, to see how that affects the story into the second and third act was telegraphed and frankly is beneath these participants. On a high level overview, the story is just very "conventional" despite how subtle it is in places.
From a performance perspective, Leo is the good (the best part of the film I feel). Personally, I was sick and tired of him for a decade, then he did The Departed and convinced me of the acting chops he has. He's growing into his own as an acting presence. Crowe's role is forgettable. I enjoyed watching Strong more than I did Crowe; his accent was very persuasive and he was the surprise of the film. I've seen his last two films and am convinced that he's got some great work ahead of him. It's a pity though, there are a couple of solid pieces of acting that go wasted in a film that frankly anybody else could have done. What starts out promising winds up falling flat.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner gives us Body of Lies in all its 2.40:1 widescreen glory, using the VC-1 codec and presented in 1080p high definition. Scott shot most of the film in Morocco, a location he knows well from shooting Kingdom of Heaven and Black Hawk Down there. Director of Photography Alexander Witt is aware of how Scott works, having done second unit photography on four of Scott's films since Gladiator. Scott's films traditionally look outstanding in high definition, and the way Body of Lies looks in high definition is no exception. Fine detail both in the foreground of many shots and in the background is excellent. The Moroccan desert is shown in more than one wide shot, and you can spot tire treads, individual rocks and bushes, and up close, facial detail in Roger and Hani looks outstanding. Many images look three dimensional - the humvees exiting the Turkish military base is the first one that comes to my mind - but there's a ton more that are reference quality. Another great looking film from Scott.
On the audio tip, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround option is amazing just as I was expecting it to. An early sequence where Roger and his Iraqi assistant visiting the home of a terrorist informant is arguably the most demo worthy. Roger storms the home, throws a grenade in to clear any enemies, and later runs out of the home before it explodes. A chase follows which includes air support and the attackers are neutralized. During that time, explosions rumble through the soundstage with a powerful low end, bullets pop in all channels and the jeeps that all parties drive go from the front to rear speakers (and later the left to right front speakers) clearly and powerfully. The action scenes are as good as they come in high definition, and even in the quieter sequences, dialogue doesn't fade in the center channel and directional activity (like in the town sequences, or when some characters get tortured) keep you in the middle of it all. Amazing stuff for sure.
On standard definition there's a single disc, extras-free edition, and a two-disc edition with digital copy. The Blu-ray disc gets the latter, with some additional perks. Crowe, Monahan and Ignatius do a commentary which is edited together and seems a little underwhelming. Each party covers what it was that made them want to do the book/film, and each seems to focus on their own particular information silo. Scott talks about character backstories and examinations and gets very scene-specific at times, and discusses how he runs a set. Ignatius is probably the most interesting among the three as he fills in the blanks on the real-world detail and how he incorporated it into the book. Things like weapons specs, agent qualifications and general thoughts on the War on Terror are touched upon. But he also speaks to his time working on the book and the differences between it and the film. Monahan doesn't spend a lot of time on this track, and what he does cover is how he adapted the book and the challenges in adapting it for film. The track becomes monotonous in tone midway through the second act but it's a decent commentary if you liked the film.
Next up is "Focus Points," which serves as a picture-in-picture track of sorts which you can play during the movie, or you can play all nine segments on their own, totaling 1:19:26. The character and cast relationships are talked about at first, but then the production challenges soon follow, along with Scott's unique advantages of shooting another film in Morocco. The costume, location and production designs are next, with the difficulties of each, and the crew who have been with him for awhile talk about working with Scott. Breakdowns of sequences, including the visual effects, storyboarding or other components of the scene follow, and the work to get them right is shown. By the way, some of the sequences in these pieces contain side by side comparisons with the final product, which is nice to see. Charles de Lauzirika, Scott's longtime DVD producer, turns in another fine effort with this piece. "Interactive Debriefing" is the first of two exclusives to the Blu-ray disc, and is devoted to interviews with Scott, DeCaprio and Crowe. You can watch them either by the topic they cover or the subject that is being interviewed, or you can play all nine segments (19:09). Each participant shares their thoughts on the material and working with one another, and the preparation each undertook for the film. There are five deleted scenes which follow (14:43), including an introduction by Scott. There's some more development in Roger, including a close quarters fight scene when Aisha (the Iranian doctor) discovers how vicious he is. The disc is also BD-Live enabled though as of this writing, does not have any content to view, and the second disc's digital copy closes 'er out.
While watching Body of Lie made for interesting, even taut experiences at times, the film can't avoid the fact that it's story has been done several times before. The performances are average, bordering on good, but at the end of the day, the story is too big a hurdle to overcome. It's smack dab in the middle of the spectrum of post-9/11 films I think. The disc itself is awesome from the technical categories, and the extras give you an appreciation for the film, even if it's minimal. Definitely worth renting to show off your sound system.