Bodies lie everywhere in Body of Lies. Again and again, the stakes of the U.S. war on terror are rendered in images of dismemberment, bloody injury, exploding parts, and torture. CIA agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) suffers especially — not only in real time but in flashbacks to scenes that occur before Ridley Scott’s movie begins, He’s Beaten, shot, car-crashed, and bitten by rabid dogs, Roger is repeatedly traumatized, then seeks respite (or is it revenge?) in his mission, hoping to end the brutality even as he’s an instrument of its escalation.
Still, the film grants Ferris the usual moral rightness — even as he’s committing questionable acts, he means well. You know this because he scrunches up his face and worries over his local contacts, and because he argues, sometimes vehemently, with his handler back in the States, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). His body is soft and his face puffy, his work conducted by phone. Chomping on Goldfish and chips when he’s talking to Roger — a sign of his habitual consumption, that is, his Americanness — Ed also appears distracted, shuttling his daughter to soccer or his family to The Lion King. When he’s actually at Langley, he watches Roger’s activities on giant monitors, with grids and zooms and targeting devices, able to shut down or profoundly complicate a situation with a nod to the person who will push a button or click a mouse.
Roger and Ed tell one another lots of lies, each trying to maintain control from his position. Both also expect this of the other, so their lies tend not to work out as planned, leading instead to more manipulations, more lies to fix the previous lies, and always, more bodies battered and slaughtered. You get the feeling that these guys have been at it for years, mutually resentful, untrusting, and cynical. “Do we belong there?” muses Ed about the U.S. presence in the Middle East. “Doesn’t really matter how you answer that because we’re there, we’re tired and no end in sight.” In the game they play, “It’s a fallacy that a prolonged war will wear out your enemy.” And so they try only to stay ahead of U.S. public opinion, hiding mistakes or intentional barbarities, promoting causes, selling perpetual war.
All this sets up Roger’s trajectory in Body of Lies, from doubting American agent to actual dissenter. His shift is instigated by an assignment in Amman, where he discovers another way of doing business (the “revelatory” nature of this discovery makes you think he hasn’t been paying much attention while he’s become so expert in secrecy, combat, and mass destruction). Sent to meet with the head of Jordanian Intelligence, Hani (Mark Strong), Roger encounters a man whose first directive is daunting: the condition of their cooperation, he says, is that Roger never lie to him. He agrees, because that’s what spies do, but doesn’t quite grasp the moral burden he’s assuming. Sophisticated and righteously offended by U.S. cowboyism, Hani insists that bodies matter — that taking care of families and ensuring cooperation from those who would be enemies (and oh yes, quite vocal about the inefficacy of torture), Hani is plainly leagues beyond the obsolete, cocky, and ever-confused Americans.
Roger’s impressed, but slow on the uptake. Continuing to take orders from the increasingly onerous Ed, he endangers his local contact in Sāmarrā, Bassam (Oscar Isaac), who saves Roger from terrible bodily harm before he suffers it himself, and also a new girlfriend. Relentlessly pressing its metaphorical-literal point, the movie jumpstarts the romance using his damaged body. Following the run-in with those dogs, he goes to a clinic in Amman, where he’s treated by the stunningly beautiful Iranian-born nurse Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani). She dresses the wounds, doesn’t believe his lies about where the got them (and others, some still fresh, others ancient), and tells him he has to get follow up rabies injections. The image of her plunging a long needle into his abdomen, shown in close-up a couple of times, suggests their attraction to one another is indeed sensual, but he follows courtship rituals, maintaining distance and decorum.
The notion that he might show respect to someone by respecting her body doesn’t begin to affect Roger’s interactions with other people until later. But you see how Aisha will be helpful in his education. For most of the movie, Roger goes through high-speed motions, locating targets, setting up fake jihadists, manipulating pawns without much care for consequences. He’s good at cynicism, the movie suggests, and he’s rewarded for it, his superiors all seeing the Middle East as a section of Google Earth that can be divided and doled out, the population as players to be moved or destroyed, the survivors left to buy up American-made products.
As Roger scurries around, moving and making up data, changing lives, Hani disapproves. He offers a lesson in proper and also, effective, conduct, finding a wannabe jihadist, Karami (Kais Nashif) inside a terrorist cell, then manipulating him by way of his mother. Hani’s means are ingeniously simple: he sets her up in a safe apartment with a refrigerator and AC, threatens to expose her son’s bad behavior if he doesn’t agree to provide “human intelligence” on the bad guys. As Roger watches in disbelief, Karami commits to be a spy for Hani: it’s a matter of bodies, trusting and loyal.
This is a hard concept for Roger, not to mention fantastic and romantic. But the lesson here has less to do with what might actually work “on the ground,” than with what obviously doesn’t work. Body of Lies indicts the U.S. for its arrogance, its soul-killing technologies, its abject cruelty. Hani is no saint, proving quite capable of inflicting terrible injury to writhing, screaming bodies. But he calls it punishment, and has no illusions about using it to extract “actionable intel.” It’s no surprise that Roger’s inevitable coming to consciousness results from his own torture. It’s a nasty scene that may be “just,” in some abstract movie-land of moral equivalencies, but it’s also unimaginative.