- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2008

Before the action starts in “Body of Lies,” a few lines from W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” flash up on the screen:

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

After Sept. 11, this poem about Nazi aggression in response to the Treaty of Versailles was discussed widely. Director Ridley Scott’s point in citing it is clear, here and throughout the movie: The West and the Muslim world are trapped in a cycle of violence, and terminating the cycle will be difficult (if not impossible).

The poem is an interesting choice because Mr. Auden himself would go on to repudiate its sentiments - he came to realize that his words were too quick to explain away Nazi aggression against Poland and the rest of Europe.

One wonders if Mr. Scott will feel the same way in his waning years.

“Body of Lies” stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Roger Ferris, a CIA field agent intent on tracking down Osama bin Laden wannabe Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), a terrorist mastermind intent on detonating bombs across Europe and the United States. Tracking Ferris’ progress is Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), the head of Near East intelligence, who understands the broader battlefield but has little feel for the situation on the ground.

The film opens with Ferris in hot pursuit of a terrorist safe house found after he cultivated a source too scared to go through with a “martyrdom operation.” Though Ferris has offered the source asylum in the United States, Hoffman is content to leave the would-be terrorist to his fate. The stress between the two is palpable: Ferris wants to protect those he pumps for information, whereas Hoffman is happy to feed them to the wolves after getting as much intel as possible.

Hoffman is a pushy guy, used to getting his way with minimal resistance. Unaware of the proper etiquette for dealing with Middle Eastern leaders, he unwittingly hurts Ferris’ relationship with the head of Jordanian intelligence (Mark Strong), then compounds the mistake by compromising a surveillance-infiltration mission.

He comes off as a cross between the stereotypical ugly American and an idealistic cold warrior; though his behavior is sometimes cringe-inducing, his motives are pure. He wants to save innocents and kill terrorists.

There’s a similar tension at play in Mr. Scott’s work. As his use of the Auden poem indicates, there’s no doubt that this is a movie antagonistic to certain American attitudes and behaviors. Yet it’s also a movie that recognizes the barbarity of radical Islam and the fact that those fighting terrorists do so because they’re trying to save lives and stop atrocities. The choices made may be difficult, but they’re decided in good faith.

In many ways, this tension is reminiscent of that seen in “Black Hawk Down.” Though certainly an antiwar film - Mr. Scott has said that “any war film made with serious intent is an antiwar film” - it’s fiercely pro-soldier; the troops in that film are seen as honorable men with honorable motives operating in circumstances beyond their control.

Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Crowe do a good job of imbuing their characters with a similar sense of honor, though Mr. Crowe might revel a little too much in Hoffman’s “ends justify the means” mentality. The film is also unflinching in its examination of the Islamic terrorists, who are portrayed as amoral monsters.

Visually, the film is quite striking. Few modern filmmakers handle desert landscapes as well as Mr. Scott: the interplay of light and dust; the clash of sleek automobiles and helicopters with run-down, sand-stained hovels; the density of urban life and the trickiness of urban warfare.

It’s too bad Mr. Scott’s moral vision isn’t as clearly refined as his camera’s.

★★★

TITLE: “Body of Lies”

RATING: R (Strong violence, including some torture, and for language throughout)

CREDITS: Directed by Ridley Scott, written by William Monaghan

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

WEB SITE:http://bodyoflies.warnerbros.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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