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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Everything adds up nicely in Body of Lies.

Manly Man becomes Family Man

Ferris takes a liking to a nurse named Aisha
Ferris takes a liking to a nurse named Aisha

Body of Lies is an espionage thriller that tells the tale of Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio, Catch Me If You Can) and Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind), two rising star CIA operatives who go through Machiavellian contortions to entrap “the enemy.”

In this case, the enemy is a reclusive, well-to-do, al Qaeda mastermind known as Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul, Munich). Ferris and Hoffman may use deceitful tactics, but the jihadists do too. They plot under the cover of chasing girls, smoking hashish, and drinking alcohol — all in an effort to “deceive the infidels.” The end result is a surprisingly engrossing look at the different sides and angles of modern terrorism.

Sure, it’s cool to see Crowe and DiCaprio team up again (remember the Sam Raimi western, The Quick and the Dead, from 13 years ago?) And, yeah, it’s amusing to see Crowe without his trademark masculinity, the quality that director Ridley Scott terrifically exploited in Gladiator. This time he plays a heavyset spy/family man who dreads having to take his children to see The Lion King yet again.

Brothers of Awareness

There are four key pieces to this puzzle that take the movie beyond the realm of standard Hollywood spy fare. The first is Ridley Scott’s typically snazzy sense for the cinematic. In one particularly nifty scene, Ferris, after being taken captive, is dumped in the middle of a Jordanian desert then encircled by a caravan of trucks. Hoffman and his gaggle of agents, watching via satellite, lose sight of Ferris in a rising cloud of sand and dust, creating the modern-day equivalent of a shell game.

Another piece comes via William Monahan’s tight screenplay, based on the novel by David Ignatius. More specifically, there’s a subplot that comes in the guise of something akin to a romance. Ferris is headed for a long-distance divorce and, following a nasty incident involving rabid dogs (which follows an even more grisly accident that sent him to the hospital with the bone chips of his partner riddled throughout his arm), Ferris takes a liking to a nurse named Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani making her Hollywood debut).

Thankfully, this doesn’t become a sexsationalized romance. She’s an Iranian living in Jordan and she eventually, conservatively, takes to Ferris’ charms as he comes back for his next rounds of rabies shots. Invited over to meet her sister, Ferris quickly warms to Aisha’s two nephews and they play their own spy games by covertly cluing Ferris into which portions of their mother’s cooking is edible and which is best avoided.

Afterward, Ferris and Aisha chat outside her sister’s apartment and she calls him out on his “spy” antics, referring to his sneaky dealing with her nephews and unaware of his real occupation (he had pawned himself off as a political advisor who snowboards in Amman on the side). When the two look up, they see her nephews and sister keeping an eye on them from the balcony. In the grand scheme of things it’s a small moment, but in the ebb and flow of Body of Lies and its multi-layered take on good versus evil, it’s a sweetly telling little observation of the various forms “spying” can take.

Character Assassination

The third piece is that Body of Lies is filled with interesting characters.

One of the leads is a man called Hani (Mark Strong, Syriana), who works for the Jordanian equivalent of the CIA. Strong is top notch here as an ultra-cool-under-pressure kind of guy who asks for only one thing: never, ever lie to him. He has no qualms about riding the fine line between interrogation and torture as he takes Ferris on a tour of his “fingernail factory.” He also adroitly points out to Ferris that Americans, by virtue of their democracy, are incapable of secrecy. After all, the best intelligence operations remain a secret forever.

Another key character is Mustafa Karami (Kais Nashif, The Nativity Story), a double agent of sorts who is craftily set up by Hani, who sends Mustafa’s mother a lot of money, buys her a house, and gives her the impression her son is a huge success. It’s a way of shaming Karami out of al Qaeda service and into Jordanian espionage — and Hani has the power of life or death over him; if he doesn’t obey, he’ll be exposed.

The final piece of the puzzle is a scene that revolves around another fine performance by DiCaprio. Following the dust cloud episode, he finds himself in that sadly all-too-familiar situation: tied down and sitting in front of a video camera, his execution only moments away from being spread around the Internet.

Finally face-to-face with Al-Saleem, Ferris is given the opportunity to say what an untold number of people would love to have the chance to express.

Body of Lies, after a shaky, uncertain start, proves to be a great thriller that stands on its own.