Thursday, April 9, 2009

Body of Lies -- the motives of men

Body of Lies Various

Director: Ridley Scott, 2008.

Ridley Scott sets out to tell a story of counter-terrorism with no hidden agendas. Yet that story is suffused with hidden agendas and riddled with lies. As a thriller goes, it works well. But it is not for those with weak stomachs, as the torture scenes are brutal though short.

Scott has directed some of the best movies of the last three decades in multiple genres. He gave us the chilling Alien and the cult classic Blade Runner. Who can forget the road trip of Thelma and Louise? He was nominated for three Best Director Oscars, for Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down, but has never won one. This is not his best, but he has always set the bar high, and does tell a good tale.

Here he is reunited with his Gladiator star, Russell Crowe. Indeed, three of the last four films Crowe has starred in have been directed by Scott (A Good Life, American Gangster, Body of Lies), so Scott knows how to bring the best of him. Playing Ed Hoffman, a CIA controller in Langley, he is a dumpy middle-aged careerist who is always connected to his cell phone. On the other end of the line is Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), his hands and feet in the Middle East. Ferris, the CIA operative on the ground, does the dirty work while Hoffman takes the glory.

As the film opens an explosion occurs in a home in Manchester, England, where Muslim extremists were making bombs. A new campaign of terror is underway led by Muslim cleric Al-Saleem, who is hiding somewhere in the Middle East. With little intelligence to work from, Ferris and Hoffman are in the dark.

Body of Lies Publicity StillThe plot becomes complex and multi-layered as Ferris discovers intel pointing to a safe house in Jordan. When he takes over the local CIA operation in that country, his arrogance emerges. But it is only a mirror of that of his boss, Hoffman. Both men are haughty, but Ferris comes from a perspective of having put his life on the line one too many times, while Hoffman believes he has a superior intellect. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship overlaying a mutual contempt.

But with still insufficient resources, Ferris has to seek the help of Jordanian Head of Security Hani Salaam (Mark Strong). Salaam's one demand is, "Don't lie to me." Of course in this complex world of intel and counter-terrorism, this is hard to do, even to one's friends. Deceit and treachery are in abundance.

What makes Body of Lies interesting is the juxtaposition of the use of technology by the Americans and the eschewing of technology by the terrorists. With eyes in the sky, Hoffman and the CIA can sit in the comfort of their Langley conference room and watch Ferris almost get killed in a gunfight. The satellites, cell phones and computers enable them to watch, listen, and deceive. In contrast, the jihadists have learned that reverting to word of mouth messages and written communications left in dead drops is a way to evade surveillance. The abuse of technology was a central plot point of Eagle Eye, but the avoidance of technology is new.

The heart of the film, though, is the three intelligence men, Ferris, Hoffman and Salaam. And they provide a study in motives. Ferris' motivation is the purest. A man who has seen it all, and done most of it, he is captivated by love. He falls in love with an Iranian beauty, a nurse who treats him for one of his many injuries. Love is the motive for many people. Usually, it is a positive motivation. And in this case, Ferris' love is strong enough that he is willing to sacrifice himself for the life of his beloved. Likewise Jesus loved us enough to willingly go to the cross to give his life for ours. Love is perhaps the most powerful of all motivations.

Hoffman, on the other hand, is driven by success. With a cocky Southern accent, he is jaded and cynical. He trusts no one. All he cares about is the bottom line. He wants results and does not care how he gets them or who gets hurt or killed along the way. Indeed, we wonder if he cares about anything else. We see him with his ubiquitous hands-free headset, not bluetooth but corded (probably for security reasons), talking to Ferris at all times, even while caring for his kids. He does not seem to be involved in his family, he seems to be living for his work. Workaholism is an insidious destroyer of relationships. And when relationships dwindle and die, care and compassion for others usually disappears also. Jesus certainly put relationships over career. He gave up his carpentry when his life mission took center stage. Through Hoffman Body of Lies makes us question our own mission and purpose. Who and what do we really care about? What is our approach to life?

Body of Lies VariousAfter love and success comes truth. Salaam is a man who desires truth. He can work with complexity but cannot abide collusion, at least, where he is the one being deceived. He has the patience to wait for truth, unlike Hoffman whose impatience and in-your-face approach chases the truth away. Truth is indeed a good thing and should be pursued. Jesus said "I am the truth" (Jn. 14:6). In searching for truth we should look first to Christ. In waiting for truth, we should wait on the Lord (Psa. 37:7).

Body of Lies deals with trust and truth. The tagline is "trust no one; deceive everyone." There can be no approach to life more diametrically opposed and antithetical to the gospel than this. Instead, Jesus might say, "trust me and inform everyone."

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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