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Cinema in Focus: ‘Body of Lies’

The level of violence and realism makes it difficult for viewers to engage in this complex film.

2 Stars — Suspense

The multilayered tale of Ridley Scott‘s Body of Lies is overwhelmed by the violence in the film. Like in his films Black Hawk Down and Gladiator, Scott demonstrates his skill to present violent stories with such realism that the violence can cause the viewer to withdraw emotionally. This weakens what is actually a suspenseful story with complex characters who could have otherwise been more emotionally engaging.

Based on a novel by David Ignatius and adapted for film by William Monahan, the story focuses on CIA activity in the Middle East fighting Islamic terrorists.

The two main characters are CIA Middle East Director Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) and his top agent in the field, Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio).

As an amoral man who blends his merciless and racist cell phone conversations with his parenting responsibilities, Hoffman is a revolting and empty human being. Ferris is an intelligent and insightful agent who struggles with Hoffman’s decisions and disregard for human life. It is this interplay between Hoffman and Ferris that creates the moral tension within the film. When Hoffman claims that his views are American, Ferris recoils, as does the American viewer.

Though the film is about Islamic terrorists, the motivations and religious teachings of both Americans and Muslims also have texture. The Americans portrayed in the film are not honest as the Christian faith requires, and the Islamic terrorists are proclaimed as misinterpreting the Quran. However, these teachings and the film as a whole has a moralistic feel. This is revealed when the opening scene is simply the words of W.H. Auden‘s 1939 poem:

“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”

Two other central characters in the film are Jordan’s director of intelligence, Hani (Mark Strong), and Ferris’ love interest, Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani). Both are engaging in their strength of character as well as their ability to challenge Ferris’ soul. Hani does so by requiring complete honesty with him if he is going to partner with Ferris in finding the most violent of the terrorist leaders. Aisha does so by regenerating Ferris’ heart and allowing him to love once more.

Although it is difficult to accept that the violent prejudice of Hoffman could be realistic, it is not difficult to accept that an agent like Ferris would morally and spiritually struggle when trying to fight this war against terrorism. This message is of value in the midst of all this violence both onscreen and in real life.


» When Hoffman is talking on the phone with Ferris and using vulgar, defaming language in front of his children, the juxtaposition is jarring. Do you believe there are people like that? Why or why not?

» When Ferris finds love in the midst of this violent struggle, it is also an unexpected juxtaposition. Do you believe Aisha is added to the film to bring a romantic love interest to the story or because an agent like Ferris would seek for love? Why?

» The final decision of Ferris leaves him abandoned in a land where terrorists are active. Do you believe he and Aisha will be left alone since he wants out of the war? Why or why not?

Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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