Monday, October 13, 2008

Body of Lies (2008)

As a rule, movies that are jejunely naïve work better than movies that are sycophantically pandering missives of nonsense. Ridley Scott's horrendous Body of Lies manages to be both at once, a detestable thriller of zero originality, insight, thematic subtext or even consistent quality filmmaking. The acting is rote—the stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, have no chemistry, and even if they did, the self-immolating, stultifying and tone-deaf screenplay by William Monahan, based on David Ignatius's book, would not allow them to display it. Compounding the myriad pre-production problems of a miscast lead actor is a director ready to throw everything he can to the wall in the wake of his visually restrained gangster saga, evidently wishing to show that pesky Paul Greengrass who the real king of fast-cutting, why-use-four-cameras-when-you-can-use-twelve, look-at-what-I-can-do action movie-making is. Scott remains a talented, intermittently stimulating composer of sequences, but since Matchstick Men he has been making scenes, not films, and today little if any of the nascently intriguing, broad and vaguely authorial vision behind The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner persists.

The trailer for Body of Lies seemed to promise nothing but a reworking of brother Tony Scott's Spy Game, with DiCaprio playing Brad Pitt's part while Crowe accepts the drudgery of aging in Robert Redford's spot. In that respect, the trailer was honest. DiCaprio is assigned to the role of Roger Ferris, a superspy who is capable of withstanding inhuman torture while romancing the most gorgeous woman in sight (Golshifteh Farahani), engendering a phony terrorist network, dodging bullets and bombs, while barking back into his cellular phone to his boss that he's sick of the job and Crowe's CIA Middle Eastern Section Chief Ed Hoffman is playing god with real people, including the agent on the ground. Someone needed to assure DiCaprio that he does not need to further advance the testosterone toughness factor yet again, but evidently his aching desire to convince everyone that he too can “play hard” continues to win out, and will be back in the spotlight in Martin Scorsese's next film, Shutter Island. DiCaprio is best when he plays to his strengths, and he has never been more strikingly vigorous and productive in doing so than in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, which, with its acute sensitivity, allowed the actor to play desperation and angst, dualistically conveying the hidden torment of the victimizer with the impetuously manifested grief of the victimized under the honeyed surface of his most prominent gifts, the suave, flashy but naturally empathizing exterior he exudes. Repeatedly playing against his seemingly effortless strengths, DiCaprio has finally run his strategy into the ground, calamitously embarking on a risible journey of almost no greater substance than an adolescent desire to perform against perceived type.

Crowe, meanwhile, attempts to salvage some semblance of meaning out of the movie by simply playing his godlike demon of sociopathic enjoining and ordering with as much bluster and conviction as the flaccid screenplay will allow. No such luck: juxtaposed against DiCaprio's puling and over-emoting, Crowe's hotshot merely looks like an extension of same, only with authority. The result is pouring marinara sauce on crushed tomatoes. Crowe is an eminently puissant actor, but he is at his best when he underplays the psychological unrest and narcissism behind his more unsavory avatars, such as last year's 3:10 to Yuma. Here, just eating his breakfast he looks like he wants to run into the movie theater and throw soccer balls at the heads of random people merely to pass the time.

Scott's limp attempts to push the antagonism, and to simultaneously further some decisively uninvolving plot twists at the expense of the thinly-sketched caricatures at the minuscule-sized heart of his movie are quite appalling, especially when the twists are—to be charitable—quite unbelievable and absurd. Monahan's screenplay for The Departed played fast and loose, but, with tentative care, at least seemed to make the chess pieces into three-dimensional beings of some emotionally invested worthiness and spiritual parallelism (considering this, however, it is not unreasonable to estimate that Scorsese contributed these touches and many others that enriched Monahan's work). On another plane of humbly perspicacious observation, Body of Lies' overbearing political message is remarkably redundant, resembling the intellectual equivalent of a half-full bowl of cold gruel.

That, however, may all be expected, given that, unlike a Scorsese or a Spielberg, or even a Stiller or a Shyamalan, it is highly difficult to tell just where Scott is coming from, what he is attempting to get at and why. Once aspiring to be “the John Ford of science-fiction,” Scott's early genre work stands apart from his latter endeavors, deceptively signposting a markedly less impressive career of one ostensible stab in the dark after another. When questioned about the meaning of his art, most of Scott's fans seem to either scoff or ignore the pointed issue. Whatever unmined vein would have been probed had Scott's Legend not so resoundingly failed, one cannot know. As it stands, Scott's films are more easily self-critiqued and either enjoyed or dismissed as stand-alone enterprises. He is a much more arresting artist than Ron Howard, but the recurrence of genre (sci-fi, epic, war movie, occasional offbeat drama) seems to only follow from one almost whimsical try after another (“How about a gangster film?” “A spy vs. terrorist movie?” “An historical epic?”), typically with the emphasis on a cyclorama of blurry imagery and unquestioned scope (of production if truly nothing else).

Body of Lies, however, if to be judged all the more churlishly through the restrictedly narrow prism of a director making just another movie, is nothing less than a complete waste. The romance is nothing but a laughable confluence of the kind of fancifully archaic wartime melodrama belonging to a bygone era, fascinatingly last seen in cinemas in another overwrought director's DiCaprio-starring opus of misdirected anger and geopolitical absentmindedness, Blood Diamond. Its action beats are tired, as though Scott himself only halfheartedly played his part of ringmaster and construction project manager, and the geopolitical “vision” driving the insipid posturing of the filmmakers into the assaulted minds constituting the audience manages to be opaquely, confusingly muddled, rendered in ceaselessly unengaging “twists” as unforeseeable as the slight turn in the road half a mile from one's home and childishly perfervid in its faux cynicism and gloom all at once. It is grand folly, waltzing with histrionic spy-game perfidy and pungency with woeful ungainliness and inability. Eagle Eye wore its preposterousness as a badge of honor, playing around in the sandbox with some of the same toys as Body of Lies, but knowing, at least, that it was in the sandbox.


Sam Juliano said...

Well,Alexander, I've been waiting to read that no-holds-barred "pan" from you, especially since your previous essay of condemnation was for a film I liked--AMERICAN BEAUTY(lol). The film indeed has "zero originality, insight and thematic subtext" and there certainly is little chemistry between Di Caprio and Crowe. Di Caprio has indeed worn out his welcome with going-against-hype, and as you wisely note, he was indeed in his element with CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. He did well going against hype--or at least evincing an "accent" with BLOOD DIAMOND as well. Crowe is a great actor, but when he lowers his standards like he does here the results are not nice to look at.
And the very idea that this quintessential "hack" Tony Scott had designs on being the "John Ford of sci-fi" is enough to make one wanna vomit!
I gave this film ** of 5, and thagt was even a gift. It is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but you can be rest assured I would be pleasuring myself with it again!
Terrific pan here Alexander!

Alison Flynn said...

Wow. Scathing.

I'm sorry to hear about DiCaprio and Crowe. I really like both actors.

Sam Juliano said...

Sorry about th etypos, I am a bad violator of this. Meant to say "won't" instead of "would" in the final sentence of my post.

gillian said...

Hm, where’s my thesaurus...

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam, I'm gratified to hear that you are pleased with the pan, haha.

Only one correction, which is that it was Ridley Scott, not his brother Tony, who, to my knowledge, spoke of becoming the John Ford of sci-fi.

Allan, the truth is I like them both as well. Both are enormously gifted. Unfortunately, this film did not allow them to even remotely shine.

Sorry, gillian, I'm a fellow with two as-of-now unpublished novels, and whenever I sit down and speedily write I tend to be too liberal in my word filigree.

Alison Flynn said...


Alexander Coleman said...

This is shaping up to be one of the stranger threads at CCC.

Alison Flynn said...

You called me Allan. :(

Alexander Coleman said...


Alison, how does one apologize for such an unpardonable sin?

My eyes have been quite itchy today from the moment I awakened, and I've been rubbing them continually. Somehow, "Alison Flynn" read as "Allan Fish" with your first post.

Still, inexcusable on my part!

genuflects before Alison

Alison Flynn said...

I figured it was something like that. :)

This is a strange thread though.

Allan Fish - that name seems very familiar.

Alexander Coleman said...

Blame the allergies. Any typos or other moments of miscommunication can be chalked up to them. No, I'll take the blame. Sincerely sorry about that, Alison.

Allan Fish has been posting comments here recently, and he's Sam's partner in crime at Wonders in the Dark.

Allan Fish said...

Yes, but I've never been accused of being a woman before. A foul marmedon, yes. A rampaging wildebeast, affirmative. But never a woman.

Don't tell me the film was so bad you turned to forbidden substances.

Alexander Coleman said...

Hahaha, Allan, that was the perfect (temporary) capper to an interesting thread.

That said, others are free and even encouraged to join in.

Sam Juliano said...

LOL!!!!! This is a great thread for sure, but bads films often engender such discourse! I "look" forward to your next pan! LOL!

Tony D'Ambra said...

Wow Alexander, when you pan a movie you really pan it!

Body of Lies has opened here simultaneously and was reviewed in the papers last weekend. My usual reviewer was lukewarm, so I gave it a miss.

One question. You say (ever so eloquently) "Body of Lies' overbearing political message is remarkably redundant, resembling the intellectual equivalent of a half-full bowl of cold gruel", but, unless I missed something, you haven't actually told us what the political message is, or is it, as you say later, "highly difficult to tell just where Scott is coming from, what he is attempting to get at and why"?

This is some of what Paul Byrnes said in the Sydney Morning Herald:

'...a bigger question [than the failings of the CIA] in this script, adapted by William Monahan (who wrote The Departed), is how far a democracy such as the US should be prepared to go in the "war on terror". At least, I think it is asking that question: it's a little hard to tell because this is not a movie with clear distinctions between right and wrong. Perhaps that's the point - the evil done in return becomes hard to spot when you start killing people for "the greater good"... It's more of a respectable second-rank thriller - intelligent but muddled, action-packed but thoughtful. Its real value might be that it gets us closer to a credible depiction of what a field officer for the CIA might actually have to do these days and a suggestion of why the agency often fails to do its job."

Alexander Coleman said...

Grrr... I wrote out an exhaustively long comment and the server ate it. Dispiriting.

Allow me to answer more succinctly than I originally planned to.

Firstly, thank you, Tony.

And thanks for sharing the excerpt from Paul Byrnes' review.

Considering the film's "remarkably redundant" political message, I wrote that so it would mean multiple things at once. For one thing, we have been hit by a barrage of movies in the last twelve months or so that clumsily question the intricacies of America's "war on terror," and the political message of Body of Lies seems to be, certain measures are justifiable in being taken, but crazies in the government are inclined to overreach. (Not an altogether unconvincing idea unto itself, considering reality.) For another thing, one could not escape the feeling that we had almost seen exactly the same movie before. Brother Tony Scott's Spy Game, as referred to in the review, and other spy thrillers that attempted to display some of the uglier aspects of a "war on terror." 2005's incomprehensibly simple-minded Syriana and 2007's apparently well-meaning but banally conventional and, again, simplistic Rendition are more recent examples. Another film that shared similarities to Body of Lies, and one I mentioned in the review, Blood Diamond, suffered from many of the same problems: excessive focus on action, archetypes repeatedly used (though not as egregiously as in Body of Lies or the two aforementioned terror thrillers, come to think of it), with a political message that on one hand is beaten into the consciousness of the audience through exposition and on the other hand is made redundant unto itself as a result of the misjudged focus on action-adventure beats, the majority of which do not belong. So, ultimately, I meant redundant in multiple ways.

The matter of not knowing where Ridley Scott is actually coming from has more to do with, what is his art truly about? I have nothing against highly skilled craftsmen making studio pictures that entertain, but particularly when you traverse what are often considered rebarbative political matters as in Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster and now Body of Lies, it makes judging the position taken by the film somewhat more difficult. Body of Lies is the backwards "culmination" of that--those three other films all at least had a steadiness one could reasonably cling to, but Scott's latest is so self-consumed in its mechanical thriller cliches that it just about utterly fails.

I must take at least some issue with Byrnes' point about the film moves us "closer to a credible depiction of what a field officer for the CIA might actually have to do these days," which seems almost funny to me, no disrespect to Byrnes here at all. DiCaprio's Ferris is, as Roger Ebert notes in his review, which I read about twelve hours ago, almost an American James Bond, except much less interesting. I would estimate that a definite amount of the friction on display between agent and superior in this picture is lifelike, but probably over matters more quotidian than most of the issues at hand here.

Interestingly, I find it somewhat strange that for my money the absolute best post-9/11 take on the war on terror was about Israelis over three and a half decades ago. However, I realize Munich was quite the divisive film and others are, as in all matters, freer than free to disagree.

So much for writing a shorter version, eh...

K. Bowen said...

This film really is a polarizer, isn't it. I was fine with it for about two-thirds, but thought the ending fell apart. I think Monahan's script is interested in the same things as The Departed - the conflict between tribal and hierarchical power.

K. Bowen said...

And Tony Scott is misunderstood and often great. Man on Fire and Domino are very good. Man on FIre is hovering around my top ten of the decade.

It's Ridley that's the hack, usually. Sometimes a good hack and sometimes a not-so-good hack.

Sam Juliano said...

Tony "Top Gun" Scott is a "hack" to my eyes, as is Ridley to an extent.

But Ridley is way better than Tony--he made two masterpieces, BLADE RUNNER and ALIEN. What good film did Tony ever make?

Sam Juliano said...

As far as MAN ON FIRE, I won't even go there.

Before I get taken to task for my blunt responses here let me say that I think K. Bowen is a fantastic writer and a man of great filmic intelligence.

I just disagree here that's all.

Sam Juliano said...

And as far as TRUE ROMANCE is concerned, it was all the Tarantino script and the actors who fueled that one. Scott was fortunate there to be the helmer.

Sam Juliano said...

And I have just corrected an inexplicable slight, and have added K. Bowen's site to my blogroll at WitD.

Alexander Coleman said...

"I think Monahan's script is interested in the same things as The Departed - the conflict between tribal and hierarchical power."

Interesting, and I agree. Unfortunately, it never quite grounded that conflict in the persuasive milieu that The Departed had in its favor.

I've always found your position on Tony Scott and Man on Fire especially to be interesting, KB. I don't agree but, again, it's a singularly provocative line of thinking you have there.

I'm guessing that KB's position on the Tony vs. Ridley debate--which one is an artist? which one is a hack? (or are they both?)--is that Tony seems to have a more personal aesthetic whereas Ridley goes from one manner of filmmaking and genre to another.

I find them both wanting on several scores, but it is, again, a stimulating intellectual discussion and debate.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Alexander, thank you for the time and effort you have given to your response to my comment. I can now see more clearly where you are coming from, and I really appreciate the overview you have sketched, which places your position in a wider and more comprehensible context.

As Sam knows, I have an inclination to swim against the tide, so I must say I believe that Syriana, Rendition (and In the Valley of Elah) are important and powerful films that must be appreciated as social artefacts and not only in filmic terms.

These movies are technically excellent and well directed with solid acting, so stand up well against any recent Hollywood product. They are very important socially as they are worthy attempts to dramatise important issues that concern us all, by looking at the "other side" in accessible stories, and by giving the audience a chance to at least comprehend at the level of the individual, traumatic events that are otherwise difficult to understand. Any film is a simplification as it can only be a window with a limited perspective, but I am sure these films will grow in importance historically.

Alexander Coleman said...

A fascinating position, Tony.

You may very well be right. It is difficult to say. The fact that just about all of these movies have failed to connect with audiences and critics at the respective times of their releases may indeed indicate that they will be considered much more important down the road.

I suppose that my main disagreement is that, while I applaud the effort, I've found most of these movies to be too one-sided to fully work. However, there are films that are often considered "one-sided" by others that I think have done a rather exceptional job in conveying the nuanced, layered quandaries of individuals and institutions, as surely as, say, Robert Wise's Executive Suite did when it was released--like last year's Michael Clayton, which I thought bravely illuminated the depths to which people forced to make truly life-and-death decisions in the American corporate world must sink for the sake of their own professional and possibly physical survival. Your piece on that film was most welcome by me, and like I wrote to you, I think I certainly should write a review of that film, as, to repeat myself, I thought it was ill-received by quite a few intelligent people who could not see past the exterior of lawyers and a movie star (George Clooney) giving his greatest performance (in a moment of courageous predicting on my part, to complement yours, watch as his turn as Michael Clayton receives greater accolades, especially as the almost incongruous comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis's work in There Will Be Blood, motivated by awards bodies and Oscars, recede).

You provide a strong counterpoint, though, Tony. Keep swimming against that tide. :)

Sam Juliano said...

Alas, I agree with Alexander, but I simultaneously feel that to fully comprehend a critical position, one must be fully cognizant of contrasting viewpoints. I know Tony has swam against the tide, (most shockingly with his position on VERTIGO and Hitchcock in general) but his reasoning and own artistic perceptions are more than valid, and would stand up to the best scrutiny.

Essentially, I came to the same conclusions Alexander did to the films in question, but Tony and I agree far more than not.

Alexander Coleman said...

Very well stated, Sam; like you, I am earnestly interested in Tony's position, all the more so because he backed himself up so well.

Daniel Getahun said...

Hey, I LIKE Top Gun! :-P

Whew. Indeed, Alexander, indeed. You sure ripped this one apart in every way. Your analysis of Crowe and DiCaprio in particular affected me. I think maybe I had a funny feeling that they weren't really stretching for these, but it wasn't until you called them out on it that I really bought it. I guess I was just happy enough to laugh at them in different scenes.

So what does this mean for DiCaprio's future? Is he ever going to get back to the really challenging roles like he delivered in This Boy's Life, Gilbert Grape and Basketball Diaries, or is he just going to coast along for the foreseeable future?

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Daniel, haha.

A most excellent question about DiCaprio. I don't have the answer, but I'd like to think, optimistically, that he will get back to finding roles that suit him more than what he's been going after recently, most regrettably in this film.

DiCaprio and Crowe kind of did what they could, but like you say, Daniel, there was something very much laughable about both of them.

vanessa said...

This movie was unmitigated crap and your devestating and scathing review is great.

Sam Juliano said...

Indeed again Vanessa. The movie is surely "unmitigated crap" and it deserved the superbly nuanced scathing review it received.

Lucy said...

This movie is definitely one the best of 2008

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Lucy. I can't agree with the comment, but its boldness is vaguely endearing.