Joe's Movie Reviews

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Nice Try

I don't THINK I'm too far out of the usual loop on this, but when a movie is filled with Oscar-nominated (or winning) talent, I think I have the right to expect a little bit more from it than if it were the creation of anonymous hacks. "Body Of Lies" features the work of director Ridley Scott, stars Russell Crowe and Leonardo Decaprio, and a script by William Monahan (screenwriter of "The Departed"). All of this, plus a hot-button topic: the war on terror and how U.S. policy in the Muslim world has shifted the balance of terror. Try as you might to keep a completely open mind, you almost can't help but expect to blown away. And the actual end result? Well, nice try.

Leo plays a CIA operative in Iraq, assigned the task of finding and bringing in an Osama bin Laden-like terrorist leader. His boss, played by Russell Crowe, delivers his instructions and concerns mostly by phone from his cozy little white-picket-fence suburban home as he simultaneously goes about his mundane daily family life with little or no actual worries about the effects of what he's ordering Decaprio to do... either on the actual war effort itself or on the non-combatant civilians of Iraq. And Leo, as he grows increasingly disillusioned about the policies he's being ordered to implement even as he remains convinced of the need to combat terrorists, happens to become romantically involved with a local nurse, a relationship that will have dangerous repercussions for them both.

This is a movie in which a description of the good stuff is inevitably going to involve a lot of use of the phrase "on the other hand". For one thing, Crowe and Decaprio both deliver fine performances, with Crowe somehow managing to portray the very picture of unconcerned detachment while letting you see just enough of the genuine human being underneath that you can't really hate him, and Decaprio in particular doing outstanding work in creating a character whose dedication to his duty and disillusionment with the way he's being asked to carry it out are both palpable. On the other hand, the characters are rarely on screen together in the same place and time and thus don't get to develop much chemistry together, and Decaprio's attempts to blend in with the citizens of Iraq... in particular a segment when he disguises himself as an Iraqi... are totally unbelievable. And even his otherwise top notch performance itself falters in the romantic scenes. For that matter, the whole romantic sub-plot itself just doesn't work (especially considering that in the real world, his love interest's fellow citizens would never have allowed it to develop as soon as they found out about it). I suppose they were concerned about the film's otherwise almost totally male cast, but is a credibility-straining romanace the ONLY way they could get a female character involved? Then again, on the one hand it is admirable that there are at least a few efforts made to illustrate that not every single Muslim is a terrorist, and not every single Iraqi hates the U.S. and wants to destroy it. On the other hand, it is a bit disappointing that most of the "messages" to that effect are delivered in the form of dialogue spoken by Decaprio... it would have been nice to have a few more sympathetic Iraqi CHARACTERS other than Leo's love interest. I could go on like this, but that would make this review a lot longer than anyone in their right mind would want to read. (What's that you say? Why would I assume that anyone in their right mind would want to read these reviews at all? Never mind, whose column is this?)

While watching this film I often found myself thinking of how different it would be if it had been made as either an American independent production or possibly outside the U.S. For one thing, I'm guessing it wouldn't play so much like an action thriller and be a bit more character-based, and that most of the elements that appear to have been added to increase the movie's mass audience commercial appeal would be either de-emphasized or eliminated. And maybe a little more of the viewpoints of ordinary Iraqi citizens as well. Ultimately this picture is a somewhat compromised Hollywood version of what could have been a more potent, dynamic story without those compromises.

Not that I'm saying there isn't anything to recommend it, mind you. Quite the contrary. But when a film has the potential to deliver a knockout, powerful, Oscar-worthy story that brings the war headlines home in a very real, human way and winds up being a well-made and mostly well-acted action picture that almost seems afraid of being everything that it could have been, you can't help but feel a bit of a letdown. See it if you really love the work of the fim's creators (but at the lowest ticket prices you can find... it's definitely not worth a 9 or 10 dollar ticket), and hope that some day Hollywood will have the courage to make an authentic film about terrorism and Iraq... and that those involved will find a movie more worthy of their talents next time.