If you've read David Ignatius's novel Body of Lies and are expecting to see that story recreated on the DVD of the same name, you'll be disappointed. The screenwriter William Monahan, who also wrote Kingdom of Heaven for the director Ridley Scott, has a penchant for meandering stories within which are wrapped bigger ideas. That's not necessarily a bad strategy, but the result can be an audience whose attention meanders as well.
If your attention wanders during Body of Lies, Monahan is not the only one to blame. Scott, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe have their fair share to shoulder, as well. The film is full of lies, double-crosses and murders of necessity, which as far as most of us know, are common in the world of espionage, counter-espionage and counter-counter-espionage. DiCaprio as the CIA operative Roger Ferris kills two of his own assets in the first 20 minutes of the film, establishing that he is a hardcore agent who does what has to be done. He expresses remorse afterwards but his regret seems so shallow that the incidents quickly fade into the past.
The plot involves the CIA and the Jordanian intelligence agency in pursuit of a radical imam who is wreaking havoc in Iraq. Ferris is told to run the operation but he soon learns that his boss in Washington, Ed Hoffman (Crowe), is running a parallel operation. On the ground, the two stumble over each other, infuriating Ferris as he finds himself drawn into inconvenient shoot-outs while barely escaping an explosion or two.
Ferris speaks fluent Arabic but everywhere he goes in the film he should stick out like a sore thumb. His baseball cap and windbreaker would identify him as an American in most cities in the Middle East but in Body of Lies no one gives him a second look, even when he pulls out a gun and starts firing away on crowded streets. Only when he is seated at a cafe in a Palestinian refugee camp outside Amman does he attract any attention and that appears to be animosity stemming only from his obvious romancing of a nurse who works at a hospital there.
The bottom line is that DiCaprio as a CIA agent is not very believable. It might be true that in the real world CIA agents are not supposed to come across as CIA agents, but DiCaprio's demeanour is more adolescent than anything else. It's also a stretch to accept him as the political attache that is his cover and he certainly doesn't project much gravity when dealing with the head of Jordanian intelligence, Hani Saleem (Mark Strong).
Russell Crowe as Ed Hoffman, the head of the CIA's Middle East intelligence section in Washington, is a bit more believable than DiCaprio's Ferris. Monahan and Scott, however, missed a golden opportunity to draw a striking comparison between high-level intelligence officials and men around the world who engage in torture. Hoffman is drawn to show the great contradictions of a man who drives his kids to school and doesn't miss a football game while discussing on his ever-present cell phone the murder of CIA assets, terrorism and general backstabbing.
Nevertheless, Crowe does have the best line of the film: "No one is innocent." In fact, it's so good he says it twice - once towards the beginning of the film and once towards the end - to make sure we get it. Oddly enough, the central device of Ignatius's novel has been completely jettisoned from the film version. Body of Lies has a literal meaning in the book and if you've read the novel, you are likely to be waiting for that to appear until the closing credits roll. There are a number of simplifications, most notably in the character of Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), who has been transformed from a complex Jordanian-American with her own clandestine ties to the intelligence community into a nurse with little to do beyond looking beautiful for Ferris. Which, admittedly, she does with aplomb.