Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCd_RTSaj48&feature=related
Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies feels authentic. The characters are consummate professionals whose personalities hinder their intentions. Taking place in about eight countries*, the story is complex but not impenetrable. Unlike other recent thrillers about the War on Terror, this one lacks an overt political message. Yet for its uncommon verisimilitude (I love that word), the movie leaves me with lukewarm feelings.
Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the CIA’s man-on-the-ground in the Middle East. From the movie’s first frames, you get the impression he’s the best at his job. He knows how to handle assets, wishes to preserve life, but does not shy away from violence. The objective? To take down Al-Saleem, an Al-Qaeda operative close in stature to Osama Bin Laden. Ferris isn’t alone in his efforts – Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), a mid-level CIA bureaucrat, watches everything from his comfortable home. The CIA mission hits a wall, so they enlist the help of Hani, Jordan‘s head of intelligence. Hani and Hoffman have very different methods, and their conflicting ideas routinely leave Ferris battered. By the movie’s end, Ferris undergoes a harrowing ordeal.
The movie’s strongest aspect is its understanding of espionage. Unlike James Bond, Ferris isn’t particularly showy. He’s not one to sip on shaken vodka martinis – in one scene, both he and Hoffman share about a dozen Budweisers. The strategy these two develop is kind of brilliant – they invent a more sinister terrorist, which sparks Al-Saleem’s jealousy, causing him to let down his defenses. As with many spy movies, personal interests get in the way of the ultimate objective. For someone so competent, it’s hard to believe that Ferris lets himself get caught up with Aisha, an Iranian nurse. Hoffman first appears like a cut of the Cheney mold: victory at all costs, collateral damage be damned. The screenplay, written by William “The Departed” Monahan, slowly flushes out the Crowe character. He ends up not as evil as I initially thought.
DiCaprio is becoming the go-to guy when a director needs an action star with frayed nerves and wispy facial hair. First The Departed, then Blood Diamond, and now this. Sure, he’s great at this kind of thing, but if he wasn’t making a movie like Reservation Road, I’d worry that he’s becoming type cast. Crowe is gains weight for his role, but his performance is not particularly noteworthy. The stand-out performance belongs to Mark Strong, who plays Hani. I first noticed Strong in Ms. Pettigrew Lives for a Day, where he plays a different role entirely. Here he’s suave, a little slimy, but ultimately a sophisticated spy. I love how Hani mixes Western indulgences with reverence for his homeland. It’s surprising to learn that the actor isn’t of Middle-Eastern descent.
A few weeks ago I reviewed a spy movie about stupid people in a situation they don’t understand. Body of Lies is like the other side of the same coin – a spy movie about smart people in a situation they don’t understand. Scott’s movie demands that the viewer pay attention, but for all of its strengths, his movies does not add to a greater whole. For one thing, the love story is a little too much to swallow. And I’ve definitely seen too much of this sort of thing before. I didn’t leave Body of Lies disappointed, but I also didn’t leave satisfied.
* Attentive viewers will notice that Eastern Market doubles for Amsterdam during a terrorist bombing.
Here are other smart recent spy movies worth knowing about:
Black Book. I’m a sucker for moral ambiguity, and this WW2 flick, directed by Paul “Showgirls” Verhoeven, has ambiguity up the wazzoo. It’s about a Jewish woman who falls in love with the Nazi officer that she tries to deceive. With thrilling set pieces and a compelling story, viewers will easily be caught up in the narrative. At the same time, however, this movie does a good job of illustrating the futility of war, and how it becomes a larger-than-life, chaotic force. The lead actress, capable and duplicitous, is as good a heroine as Sigourney Weaver from the Alien movies. Fans of The Lives of Others will recognize the German actor who plays the Nazi officer. This movie will give you sights you (probably) don’t see often. How often, for example, do you get a scene of a woman dyeing her pubic hair? Released last year, this outstanding thriller was largely unseen by theater-goers. I think it was playing at the Chinatown Regal for only one week. Now Black Book is available for rental from Netflix, so I heartily recommend you give this one a shot.
Fay Grim. Hal Hartley wrote and directed this sequel to his 1997 dramedy Henry Fool. Starring Parker Posey, the movie is full of the oblique camerawork/dialog that made Hartley’s earlier effort such a cult success. The movie takes place nine years later, and follows Fay as she tries to locate her long lost husband Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) with help from the CIA (represented here by Jeff Goldblum). Apparently Henry’s absurd Confession contains secrets that many governments are now scrambling over. The result is a muted spy thriller – yes, there is intrigue and double cross, but Hartley’s off-kilter style (see above) prevents the viewer from being fully engaged. Sure, there is plenty of clever dialog. Sure, Posey and Goldblum have a detached delivery that’s perfect for this sort of material. But I would recommend this only to those who are familiar with Hartley’s esoteric style. It’s probably a good idea to check out Henry Fool first – it’s a better movie, anyway.
Army of Shadows. Jean-Pierre Melville is both the coolest and the most existential of French directors. He more or less invented the heist movie, and completely re-invented the hit man movie. Army of Shadows is his take on the French Resistance during WW2. A member of the resistance himself, Melville ignores heroics, his characters understand why they anonymously fight for a cause bigger than themselves. The movie is bleak – no Resistance fighter expects to survive. In one particularly memorable moment, a French prisoner is led into a vast warehouse. He is told to run from the Nazi machine guns, and if he survives, his reward is to live another day. Melville shoots harsh scenes like this one without frills – by focusing on the fierce determination of the players involved, he generates ample suspense. Lost for many years, a print of Army of Shadows was found two years ago, and fully restored. The result is stunning – the colors are vivid, and the movies looks as good as many movie I’ve seen from the 60s. There have been many movies made about WW2, but few featured such singularly badass characters.