Sunday, November 09, 2008

The War on Terror, On Film

In a nutshell, Body of Lies opens well, and starts building an interesting story. Then it goes off on a dubious subplot that isn't very convincing and takes far too long to develop. As the subplot is crucial to the ending of the film - your understanding of the characters, their motivations and their actions - it is indispensable. Unfortunately, it makes the film a bit too long and at times tedious.

The film tell a story that focuses on human intrigue, an expanding network of dysfunctional relationships with Agent Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) at its center. That is, as contrasted with a lot of other modern films about the war on terror, it seems to be trying to put story ahead of politics. But make no mistake, this is a very political film, from its outset unapologetically asserting that the war on terror (efforts to fight terrorist cells and capture terrorist leaders) is crucial to the preservation of western values and freedoms. The Iraq war merits mention, but this film is about what its makers seem to see as the real "war on terror" - an often low-tech war with some high-tech components. There's plenty of double-cross and moral ambiguity.

As overt as the politics often are, as contrasted with a film like Babel or Syriana, the films largely avoids feeling like a condescending lecture or becoming lost in its convoluted plot. But you'll still get some elements of a political lecture, with characters dropping comments here or there describing how "torture doesn't work" (which isn't to say that those same speakers find no use for it) or that Islamic terrorism is predicated upon a misinterpretation of the Koran (while making it clear that you'll have no luck convincing the adherents of that interpretation that they've made a mistake).

I haven't read David Ignatius's book, but if the screenplay is any indication he's given a great deal of thought to the "war on terror", the mistakes we have made, and the reasons for our continued difficulties in identifying and stopping terrorist leaders and terrorist cells. This film sees great value in human capital (agents working in the field, and their building relationships with locals), and is often scornful of the U.S./CIA preference for surveillance technology that arose following the end of the cold war, as well as their treatment of the locals who risk their lives (or die) while working with or assisting field agents. In the film, Agent Ferris is morally elevated over his boss not because of what he does for those harmed or killed by his actions, but because he wants to offer assistance before indifferently accepting that it's not forthcoming.

But Ignatius is no Luddite - far from it. The film depicts whiz-bang, nifty keen technologies in all, or perhaps most of, their glory. While highlighting the limitations of technological surveillance, he also illustrates its usefulness, and showcases how even one or two people can orchestrate a massive disinformation campaign through the Internet.

Leonardo DiCaprio is well cast in this film, although the character he plays will be familiar to those who have seen his recent work. (His accent may change, but it's essentially the same character he played in Blood Diamond and The Departed.) His character is suited to his role. I suspect that Ridley Scott had fun with Russell Crowe, chubby and aged, commenting to DiCaprio at one point that a decade earlier he could have taken him in a fight. (Believe it or not, yes, it's almost a decade since Scott directed Crowe in Gladiator.)

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