The 2000’s were a period of peak productivity for director Sir Ridley Scott, with the venerated filmmaker cranking out no less than nine feature films before the decade would come to a close. It’s exceedingly rare for any artist, let alone one capable of commanding massive, logistically-complicated productions, to experience a sustained burst of creative energy while pushing seventy years of age. Yet, here was Scott, busier than ever— a couple gray hairs at his temples being the only physical indicators of his slowly-fading vitality. The timing of this prolonged burst of creativity (I’m reluctant to call it a renaissance) was no accident, however. It was a direct response to the sociopolitical zeitgeist, when the War on Terror was raging blindly and bluntly throughout the Middle East. The conflict was of particular interest to Scott, due to his artistic fascination with the phenomenon of xenophobia and his personal affection for the Middle Eastern region. His strongest work from this period — GLADIATOR (2000), BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) — dealt (wholly or in part) with this convergence of setting and theme. When Warner Brothers optioned the rights to author David Ignatius’ counterterrorism/espionage thriller “Body Of Lies” (originally published under the title “Penetration”), Scott likely saw another opportunity to capitalize on his ascendant momentum with a timely foray into the murky ethics of America’s current shadow war.
It could be argued that the resulting effort, 2008’s BODY OF LIES, is a spiritual sequel to KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. Despite nearly a millennia of temporal separation between them, the bitter conflict between Western and Eastern ideologies is still very much the same. Scott would lean into this sentiment by hiring his KINGDOM OF HEAVEN scribe, William Monahan, to adapt Ignatius’ book for the screen. Much like the real-life conflicts it aspires to portray, BODY OF LIES’ narrative is admittedly muddy and overly-complicated in its telling of a CIA operative’s attempts to draw the head of a dangerous terror cell out from hiding by staging what is essentially a false flag terror attack of his own. Leonardo DiCaprio plays field agent Roger Ferris, who embarks on a globetrotting quest across far flung locales like Iraq, Dubai, Turkey, and Syria in order to expose the terrorist organization’s reclusive leader, Al-Saleem. Try as he might to hide behind a veneer of unkempt scruffiness, DiCaprio is simply too famous a face to disappear completely into the role, although the film’s culture of chaos does make great use of his talents for playing desperate and confused characters. He’s laser focused, yet barely managing to keep his head above water. Every step he takes is monitored by his boss, Ed Hoffman, who dispatches commands and advice from cushy environs back in Virginia. Played with great relish by Russell Crowe in his third consecutive collaboration with Scott (and fourth overall), Hoffman is a blustering neocon hawk like so many real-world bureaucrats during the W. Bush years. Crowe is significantly more successful at disappearing into his role than DiCaprio, having gained nearly fifty pounds (!) and dyed his hair a sleek gray while affecting a syrupy southern drawl. As the chief of the CIA’s Near East Division, Hoffman’s job is to essentially subvert Ferris’, continually running side ops over the head of his man in the field — many of which come into direct conflict with Ferris’ mission objectives. After a bungled operation that dangled the promise of asylum in America if their informant within the terrorist organization could expose his colleagues, Ferris (and Hoffman, physically absent but ever-present in DiCaprio’s ear) attempts to negotiate a collaboration with Mark Strong’s Hani, the urbane Jordanian Intelligence Chief.
Together, the three concoct a plan to implicate an innocent Jordanian architect in a staged terror attack, betting on the witless man’s very life that he will be contacted by Al-Saleem. A high-stakes game of cat and mouse ensues, with a series of double-crosses and deceptions that further coil an already-labyrinthine plot that endeavors to compare and contrast the effectiveness of technology against more-primitive, human-based efforts in counterterrorism operations. If this focus wasn’t ambitious enough, BODY OF LIES also throws in a romantic subplot that finds Ferris angling for the affections of a stern Iranian nurse named Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani). While it’s debatable whether this romantic subplot actually adds anything to the primary narrative, it goes a long way towards illustrating the vast cultural divide between Western and Middle Eastern cultures, emphasizing the strict expectations of women in the Muslim world. Indeed, Farahani‘s involvement in the film represents a considerable personal risk on her part, with her performance attracting the ire of the Iranian government for appearing on screen without her hijab (40). She’s joined by a sprawling ensemble cast that includes the likes of Oscar Isaac and Michael Stuhlbarg just prior to their mainstream breakouts— Isaac as Ferris’ partner in Iraq and Stuhlbarg in a brief cameo as Ferris’ attorney back in America, tasked with negotiating the terms of his client’s imminent divorce. In what is undoubtedly a playful nod to his past canon, Scott drafts his partner Giannina Facio to reprise her GLADIATOR duties as Crowe’s wife.
Produced by Scott and fellow producer Donald De Line on a $70 million budget, BODY OF LIES counters its obfuscation of narrative with a clarity of aesthetic that only he could bring to the fore. Having previously worked for Scott as a second unit cinematographer in a series of collaborations stretching all the way back to 1989’s BLACK RAIN, BODY OF LIES presents the opportunity for Alexander Witt to finally obtain his first credit as the main Director Of Photography (2). While Witt proves every bit as capable as the cinematographers before him in replicating Scott’s high-contrast aesthetic, his work on BODY OF LIES differs from that of his predecessors by his use of natural light whenever possible. This results in a far grittier look than the glossier theatricality of Scott’s soundstage work. The Super 35mm film image deals primarily in the director’s characteristic blue and orange tones, using this warm/cool dichotomy to quickly differentiate the various American and Middle Eastern locales. While shooting with anamorphic lenses would have given Scott and Witt an organic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, their choice to shoot with spherical lenses instead (and crop the frame in post) points to a desire for a technical precision within the overall picture— or to put it another way, a desire to avoid the anamorphic format’s natural warping and distortion of the image at frame’s edge. An omniscient “surveillance” aesthetic guides Scott and Witt’s setups, conveying Hoffman’s distant-yet-watchful eye through the use of aerials, zooms, and drone POV setups that complement the close-up handheld chaos on the ground. Scott populates his frames with his signature atmospherics, constantly layering elements like smoke, dust, billowing flags, silhouettes and lens flares that inject three-dimensional volume into a two-dimensional image. BODY OF LIES’ visual presentation may not seem particularly impressive on its face, especially considering the flaring dynamicism of his previous works— its admirable complexity lies in the process of its making rather than the final result. Scott’s absolute command of large-scale production logistics, combined with a clarity of vision that’s without peer, enables him to shoot with no less than three cameras running at any given time. To hear his collaborators tell it, the act of watching Scott direct his multi-cam setups from video village (while editing in his mind) is akin to watching a great conductor confidently leading a grand symphony.
Scott hedges the risk of working with a new cinematographer by enlisting the help of trusted collaborators in other departments, namely: production designer Arthur Max, editor Pietro Scalia, and composer Marc Streitenfeld. Max continues to make his case as Scott’s most-valued creative partner, helping the director to conjure up immersive environments on a regular basis— to the point that his credits since 2005’s KINGDOM OF HEAVEN have been exclusively for Scott shoots. BODY OF LIES marks the pair’s fourth adventure to the country of Morocco, where Scott has come to be well-regarded by the government and the locals alike thanks to his critical role in conveying the country’s beauty to the world. After the film’s political nature derailed initial efforts to shoot in Dubai (3), Scott and company would quickly turn to the familiarity and friendliness of Morocco, which had an existing infrastructure and network they knew they could rely on— because they were the ones who built it. Beyond his personal fondness for the country (and arid climates in general), it’s not difficult to see why Scott turns to Morocco again and again. His unparalleled access to local resources essentially turns the entire country into one giant backlot, allowing him to fully indulge in his passion for cinematic worldbuilding. Much like a studio backlot, he can have an ancient gladiatorial arena, an urban war zone, or a medieval fortress— all within a relatively small area. It’s a testament to Scott and Max’s logistical resourcefulness that they were able to render BODY OF LIES’ globetrotting narrative using only the US and Morocco, which stands in for several Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Indeed, Morocco offers Scott and Max the same freedom and flexibility as a soundstage, allowing them ample latitude to create an immersive, three-dimensional world full of exotic urban textures, sights, and even smells. Scalia’s seasoned editing expertise allows the stitching of these disparate sets and locations together with a spatial and narrative continuity, while Streitenfeld’s orchestral, percussive score imbues said continuity with high drama and international intrigue.
One could be forgiven for thinking BODY OF LIES would rank higher in Scott’s filmography— after all, it marries two of the core components of Scott’s artistic profile (a Middle Eastern setting and the theme of xenophobia). Synergy like that often results in a home run. For all its relevant (and urgent) insights into the War on Terror and the cultural tyranny of seemingly-arbitrary country lines, BODY OF LIES’ inherent complexity is its ultimate undoing. Scott’s slick aesthetic here often comes at the expense of clarity, justifying the many critical claims that the venerated filmmaker valued style over substance on this particular outing. There was also the filmmakers’ willing ignorance of the previous failures of post-9/11 films about the Middle East and counterterrorism; the sinking of similarly-themed films at the box office offered repeated proof that there simply was no audience for these kind of works in America— at best, the wounds of September 11th were still too raw, and at worst, the deeply-ingrained culture of Islamophobia repulsed audiences from an otherwise eye-opening night at the megaplex. BODY OF LIES’ dismal $39M take during its domestic theatrical run (36) reinforced this hard lesson, further illustrating the cultural gulf between America and the rest of the world in light of an international haul that nearly tripled that number (4). The strength of its direction and performances — as well as its aesthetic and thematic kinship to BLACK HAWK DOWN and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN — nevertheless make BODY OF LIES a worthy addition to Scott’s canon, even if its ambitious foray into the moral ambiguity of modern spycraft comes up short.
BODY OF LIES is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers
Produced by: Ridley Scott, Donald De Line
Written by: William Monahan
Director of Photography: Alexander Witt
Production Designer: Arthur Max
Edited by: Pietro Scalia
Music by: Marc Streitenfeld
- IMDB Trivia Page
- Via Wikipedia: Thompson, Patricia Middle East Intrigue American Cinematographer, October 2008. Retrieved January 22, 2011.
- Via Wikipedia: “Dubai rejects Scott’s ‘Lies'”. Variety. Reed Business Information. Retrieved 2007-11-30.
- Via Wikipedia: Bowles, Scott ‘Body of Lies’ is latest war film casualty at box office USA Today, October 13, 2008. Retrieved December 30, 2010