ARTS

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October 10, 2008

A-list stars take backseat to supporting actors

Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio may be the marquee names, but Body of Lies belongs to two other performers: Mark Strong and Golshifteh Farahani. Strong, in particular, delivers a star-making performance, akin to Crowe’s in L.A. Confidential. Remember his name around Oscar time. I miss Heath Ledger, too, but there’s room for more than one performer in the Best Supporting Actor race.

Strong plays Hani Salaam, a charismatic Jordanian official who recalls both Tom Ripley and Hannibal Lecter. He looks dapper in impeccably tailored suits, his voice smooth as silk when he calls DiCaprio’s CIA operative “my dear.” Crowe and DiCaprio both underwent impressive physical transformations for their roles (Crowe gained 50 pounds, and DiCaprio grew a scraggly beard), but every time Strong is onscreen you can’t take your eyes off him.

To reveal any more about Hani would betray Body of Lies’s labyrinthine plot, which is only slightly less confusing than the similarly themed Syriana. In fact, I was ready to describe Hani as “the Jordanian president” until IMDb informed me that wasn’t the case. This is a geopolitical thriller that crisscrosses continents and assumes a working knowledge of the conflict in the Middle East. The explosions and high-tech surveillance (courtesy of director Ridley Scott, who never met a gadget he didn’t like) qualify it as popcorn fare, but no one is his right mind would call it escapist.

And I do mean his. Body of Lies is almost entirely testosterone-driven, which makes Farahani’s performance even more remarkable. As the only actress with more than a handful of lines, she breathes life into her perfunctory “love interest” role. She’s the most exciting Iranian actress to debut since Shohreh Aghdashloo in House of Sand and Fog.

A dinner scene between her character, nurse Aisha, and DiCaprio’s Roger Ferris brilliantly illuminates the difference between American and Iranian attitudes, right down to Ferris’s pat dismissal of the current war as “the situation in Iraq” (a gaffe from which his character only partially recovers). Body of Lies deserves credit for tackling tough issues, delving a little deeper than one might expect from a mainstream Hollywood drama. It’s sure to have a strong opening weekend, but it’ll be interesting to see if star power is enough to propel it into a hit, particularly considering the box-office failures of other topical dramas like Rendition and Stop-Loss.

That’s not to say that in its quest for immediacy and relevance Body of Lies doesn’t occasionally go too far. The depiction of a terrorist attack in Amsterdam that kills at least 75 tourists and Dutch citizens seems in poor taste, yet I hesitate to attack the filmmakers for their adherence to realism. If the scene had featured, say, a subway bombing in London, the air would be rife with cries of “Too soon!” And if anything vaguely terror-related occurs in Amsterdam in the next few months, Scott will be squirming in his director’s chair. At least one online review excoriates the Amsterdam explosions as “pornographic.” But isn’t that exactly how we should feel about acts of terror?

As for DiCaprio and Crowe, that scratchy beard and those extra pounds: As if his collaborations with Scorsese weren’t enough, DiCaprio continues to show that his teen-idol status was a cosmic fluke and not indicative of limited acting ability. (It’s still a little shocking, though, to hear the baby-faced heartthrob crassly announce, as he does in a late scene, that he has to “take a shit.”) This is the kind of role where Edward Norton usually excels, but DiCaprio acquits himself rather nicely. And any chance Russell Crowe gets to show his range to a U.S. audience, the better. Sentimental, Oscar-mongering junk like A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man doesn’t do the actor any favors. His best work, in films like Romper Stomper and The Sum of Us, is rarely seen outside Australia. That’s an indictment of U.S. foreign policy right there.

For some reason, both leading men affect a Southern drawl. Since Crowe’s character is the kind of renegade who shoots first and asks questions later and since DiCaprio’s character, as his underling, is obliged to follow orders, could the accent be an invocation of a certain commander-in-chief whose own vocal inflections are Texan? I’m still not sure. Crowe’s Ed Hoffman is an advocate of preemptive strikes on terrorists, while DiCaprio’s Roger Ferris errs on the side of caution. If the film comes down on any side, it’s Ferris’s, but it’s smart enough to allow for moral ambiguities. It feels anti-war, but it might be pro-surge.

“Be careful what you say when you talk about America,” Ferris spits at Hoffman in the final scene. As a parting shot, it’s not nearly as scathing as it needs to be; in fact, it provoked a smattering of giggles from the screening audience at Doc. But in today’s dopey pop-cultural climate, I’m grateful that a popcorn flick like Body of Lies can squeeze in some editorializing between fight scenes.