Body of Lies
Produced by De Line Pictures and Scott Free Productions
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by William Monahan
Distributed by Warner Brothers

Director Ridley Scott and his scenarist William Monahan adapted Body of Lies from David Ignatius’ novel of the same title.  The narrative is yet another sorry tale of our military presence in the Middle East, the tar baby our neocon establishment insisted we attack five years ago.  Like Brer Rabbit, we’ve been mired in the region’s sticky embrace ever since.  The more we fight, the more we’re ensnared.

Like the other films on the subject, Scott seems to want to say something important, but like the others he has left out the key ingredient: His film does not mention Israel once.  The closest he comes to referencing our primary ally in the region is by way of a delicate circumlocution that uses a human pawn in the narrative’s cynical espionage game—a young Arab who has been driven to fanaticism by having suffered with his family in a Palestinian refugee camp since his infancy.  Nothing is said of how he came to be in the camp, of course.  An invisible purdah continues to veil the inconvenient facts of 1948 and the routing of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers.  The only films to address the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict honestly are those made by Arabs and Israelis, and few of them have been shown in this country.  Generally, American entertainers and politicians won’t touch the subject for fear the American Israel Public Affairs Committee will lower the boom on their careers.  This is extremely sad.  For there is no hope for the region until everyone on all sides faces the facts as they are, not as they have been crafted by the ideological propagandists pretending to be journalists in the pages of The Weekly Standard and National Review.  This doesn’t mean abandoning Israel; as a large and growing Israeli movement has recognized, Israel’s future depends upon achieving some kind of just coexistence with the Palestinians.  It’s a matter of both honor and enlightened self-interest that they do so.

Scott’s film manages to portray the bleakness of the Middle Eastern situation with depressing effectiveness.  He traces the efforts of Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), a CIA desk honcho, as Hoffman tracks an Osama bin Laden-like terrorist-in-chief, one Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul), who is behind several bombings on European soil.  Hoffman likes to work 24/7, hatching ever more fantastically fatal schemes for the field agents he directs from the comfort of his upper-middle-class home near Langley, Virginia.  As Hoffman tends to his daily domestic duties—chauffeuring his daughter to her soccer games, guiding his son’s first attempts at peeing into the commode—he wears a hands-free headset to keep in constant touch with his operatives, chief of whom is field agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), based in Baghdad and later Amman.  Hoffman and Ferris play a sort of electronic Laurel and Hardy act via satellite.  The self-important, obese Hoffman gruffly issues fatuous Hardyesque commands to the skinny Ferris, who resembles an increasingly befuddled Laurel.

Crowe reportedly gained 50 pounds to play his part as the self-satisfied know-it-all who never learns from his innumerable mistakes.  This weight-gain gimmick has become the mark of thespian distinction over the past 30 years, starting with Robert De Niro’s turn as the former middleweight Jake La­Motta in his dissolute roly-poly retirement.  Since then George Clooney and Charlize Theron, among others, have flabbed up for art.  Such lardihood has never impressed me as anything more than an ill-advised stunt.  Here, however, I have to concede that the extra flesh has enabled Crowe to embody the, shall we say, well-upholstered soul of a man who has thoroughly muffled whatever capacity he might once have had for compunction.  Like Oliver Hardy, Hoffman is entirely unable to see that his lamebrained schemes lead ineluctably to embarrassing, not to say nearly fatal, pratfalls for his hapless Stan Laurel in the field.

At one point, Hoffman refuses to allow Ferris to grant asylum to an Al Qaeda turncoat who has just spilled his guts to the operative.  Hoffman reasons that the man has been milked dry.  As an intelligence asset, he has more value on the loose.  His former Al Qaeda colleagues will come into the open in order to kill him, giving Ferris his opportunity to track them back to their terrorist nest.  The plan backfires badly, resulting in the death of the luckless ex-jihadi.  Soon after, Ferris finds himself at the wrong end of a rocket-propelled grenade.  Waking in a Jordanian hospital, he discovers a doctor is tweezing large bone fragments from his leg.  His face registers horror until his physician dryly observes, “Not yours.”  The fragments belong to the Iraqi ally who had been traveling with him when their jeep was hit.  Those with strong stomachs may find this scene grimly humorous, although its comedy is rather more bloody than Stan Laurel’s usual routine.

Having failed in Iraq, Hoffman moves Ferris to Amman, where the redoubtable young man meets the head of Jordanian intelligence, Hani (Mark Strong), a fellow as slick as chrome and twice as cold.  With bland irony, Hani welcomes Ferris “to our promising country” and agrees to help find Al-Saleem.  He has one condition, however.  Ferris must never lie to him.  Ferris unreservedly pledges his fidelity, but we know he’s faking.

With a blend of carefully calibrated bribery and intimidation, Hani pressures a low-level Al-Saleem follower named Karami to be his spy in the enemy camp.  Learning of this, Hoffman jets to Amman to meet his estimable counterpart.  The habitually disheveled Hoffman no sooner waddles through Hani’s office door than he’s condescendingly congratulating the elegantly tailored Jordanian.  “You’ve done a wonderful job developing this asset, Karubi,” he says with all-American unction—even as he gets the man’s name wrong.  Not an impressive show for one in his line of work.  But hell, a wog’s a wog by any other name.

When Hoffman demands to meet with Karami himself, Hani flatly rejects his request.  “You Americans,” he frostily explains, “are incapable of secrecy because you live in a democracy.  We don’t have that problem.”  Hoffman threatens to go to the king, but Hani counters that, in matters of intelligence, he is the king.

Hoffman tries to pull cultural rank as he leaves Hani’s office.  “You guys might have invented algebra, but we applied it,” he chuckles darkly.  His knuckleheaded arrogance is, alas, all too believable.

After this, Ferris and Hoffman concoct what they think will be the ultimate foolproof operation.  They arrange to invent their own jihadi in order to smoke Al-Saleem into the open.  For the sake of verisimilitude, they stage a bombing attack on the U.S. Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and make it look like it was masterminded by a Jordanian architect, an innocent man they have chosen virtually out of a hat.  Even Laurel and Hardy were never quite this hapless.  What follows isn’t all that surprising.

As always with Scott’s films, Body is visually compelling.  On one hand, there are the scenes of grimy ground-level action in the crowded marketplaces and empty deserts of Iraq and Jordan.  On the other, there are the magisterial satellite surveillance panoramas being monitored by espionage bureaucrats at CIA headquarters.  Confusing immediacy one moment; cool, calculating detachment the next.  This visual juxtaposition is a crucial element in the film’s characterization and themes.  In close-up, Ferris humanly engages with the Arabs he has come to know; at long distance, Hoffman calculates the value of his many human assets as he moves them around the chessboard of modern warfare.  And this brings us back to the bone fragments.  While Arab suffering and the pain it occasions for Americans finally penetrate Ferris, they never once pierce the complacently enblubbered Hoffman.  On the battlefield, horror; on the home front, indifference.  But as we already know, our defensive blubber has not and will not protect us from rabidly determined foes.

The theater in which I saw Scott’s film is located in an economically depressed working-class neighborhood about a mile from New York’s JFK Airport, a military recruiter’s dream location filled with prime prospects for our Iraq adventure.  As I made my way to my car through the litter of discarded popcorn cartons and paper coffee cups, I noticed something familiar amid the debris—a scapular.  A scapular is a Roman Catholic sacramental, two rectangular pieces of brown wool attached to each other by strips of cotton, designed to slip over one’s head so that one wool piece hangs on your chest and the other on your back.  The images of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Simon Stock were sewn onto the wool.  The idea is to echo the full scapular or shoulder cloak worn by monks and nuns so that laymen can participate in the rigorous devotion of those who take monastic vows.  The scapular’s origins are debated, but Church lore traces it back to St. Simon Stock’s encounter with the Blessed Mother in 1251.  During her appearance to him, Mary is said to have told Simon that anyone wearing the scapular at the hour of his death would be protected from final damnation.

I hadn’t seen a scapular in perhaps 30 years.  As I examined it, I heard an airliner above me.  Looking up, I saw that its fuselage bore the word Emirates.  I’m not ordinarily superstitious, but this juxtaposition—a nearly forgotten Catholic sacramental, Arab commerce thriving on high, and a film about America’s inability to deal with Islamic zealotry—seemed revelatory.  A scene in the film forcefully came back to me.  A CIA agent is about to have his head separated from his shoulders—the scapular region, you’ll note—courtesy of some offended Muslims.  Raising his knife, the lead executioner invokes Allah to justify the deed, declaring that the agent is a nonbeliever and therefore deserving of a grisly death.  Nevertheless, he repeatedly invites the agent to pray, which the American conspicuously does not.

As the roar of the Dubai-bound luxury liner rose, I realized once more why America is losing grip.  While we have carelessly discarded our traditional beliefs, the Islamic world metes death to those who draw cartoons of its prophet.  It’s the old question: How do we keep going if we no longer believe in ourselves?  From a vibrant, committed culture, we have evolved into a sophisticated but lackluster civilization.  Where, I wondered, was the regenerative sacramental that would defend us against our own doubts?