Tactics vs. strategy

Body of Lies

I give up. Russell, where are you hiding?

I give up. Russell, where are you hiding?

Rated 4.0

Director Ridley Scott’s movie version of David Ignatius’ novel Body of Lies opens with an epigraph quoting the poet W.H. Auden: “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.” Despite that whiff of moral equivalence in William Monahan’s script, and despite the tagline on the posters (“Trust no one. Deceive everyone.”), Body of Lies is a movie that knows which side it’s on. But knowing which side you’re on doesn’t mean everything your side does is something to be proud of, or that you have to like everyone in the trenches beside you.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Roger Ferris, a CIA operative in the Middle East. We first find him in Iraq, meeting with a potential Al Qaeda defector—the man claims that he’s been marked for a “martyrdom operation” because he knows too much, and he wants asylum in the United States. Ferris promises to help, only to be overruled via cell phone by Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), his boss back in Langley, Va. “If we don’t do this, they’ll kill him,” Ferris insists, but Hoffman is unmoved: “Then we’ll be there to see the guys who shoot him.” As it happens, both men are right, but the difference between their perspectives is telling. Ferris sees a man who trusted him, and Ferris let him down. Hoffman sees only a bad guy who got scared of his own side, “and now he wants to go to Disneyland.” It’s the difference between tactics (Ferris) and strategy (Hoffman).

After Ferris survives a nasty skirmish at an Al Qaeda safe house (his Iraqi partner does not), he is reassigned to Amman, Jordan, where a complicated set of operations will give him a taste of just how much of a tactic he really is. In Amman, Ferris is assigned to work with Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), the urbane chief of Jordanian intelligence. The joint American-Jordanian operation is on the trail of Al-Saleem, an elusive terrorist mastermind plotting a series of murderous attacks across Europe and the United States. But the lordly Hani makes it clear that while they’re in Jordan, the Americans will be distinctly junior partners, and he is unimpressed by Hoffman’s Yankee bluster. “Maybe I should get our president to call your king,” Hoffman muses, but Hani calls his bluff. “In matters of intelligence, I am the king,” he says.

In the furtive battle that follows, there will be casualties, as there always are, but to Ferris, they’re victims. To Hoffman (whom Ferris doesn’t like), drawling out orders while tootling around the house with his wife and kids, Ferris’ victims are only pieces in the game, no more individual than a pawn or bishop on a chessboard. Even to Hani (whom Ferris does like), they’re little more than that. And Ferris begins to sense that whatever his value, or however high the stakes are for him, he’s really just another piece.

Years ago, reviewing White Squall, I dismissed Ridley Scott as a “fussy pictorialist.” Well, either he’s learned a lot since 1996, or I sold him short at the time (probably the latter). In fact, he has few peers at keeping a complex script clear and tightly focused in the headlong rush of a complicated plot (Black Hawk Down, Matchstick Men); even when the script lets him down, as in Kingdom of Heaven or last year’s American Gangster, he can draw sharp and uncluttered performances from his actors.

In Body of Lies, Scott is at the top of both games. Monahan’s script is fairly straightforward, but with twists, turns and double-backs that can cause trouble if the director bobbles the ball. And when your two big stars do most of their acting in telephone conversations, it can seem like a cheat. Of course, DiCaprio and Crowe are first-rate talents, but the fact that they give a powerful sense of being in the same room even when separated by (as Ferris says) “a million fuckin’ miles” is Ridley Scott’s doing as much as it is theirs.

On top of all that, Scott gets a genuinely star-making performance out of Mark Strong as the Jordanian spy chief. The British Strong has been a prolific journeyman actor for decades, but as the smooth, crafty Hani he breaks out of the pack. When Russell Crowe accepted his Oscar for Gladiator, the first person he thanked was “a bloke named Ridley Scott.” Mark Strong may wind up doing the same.