I'm still reeling from Body of Lies' remarkable box office flameout. The $70-million, Ridley Scott-directed, heavily-advertised spy thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe opened three weekends ago to third place and 12.8 million dollars, and will struggle to get to $35 million domestic by the end of its theatrical run. What the hell happened? A B-grade Jack Ryan movie with Ben Affleck can make almost four times that, and a film with this sort of pedigree winds up dead on arrival?
The answer, of course, is that The Sum of All Fears isn't the proper point of comparison. Because it turns out that Body of Lies isn't much of a "spy thriller" after all. Writing Part One of this column back in the summer, I mused that Scott and screenwriter William Monahan were going to have a tough time making author David Ignatius's ultra-realistic depiction of CIA grunt work into compelling pop cinema. I was probably right, because they didn't really bother. They responded to the problem by making the film less crackerjack and more political; less exciting, perhaps, but smarter, sadder. In doing so, they threw their lot in with the sorry batch of Iraq War films rather than Jack Ryan. It was a bold choice that resulted in one of the best movies of the year – and a resounding commercial failure.
Politically, Ignatius' novel more or less kept its head down. There was certainly a sense that Roger Ferris, the protagonist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, was frustrated with constant, counterproductive interference by his US-stationed superior Ed Hoffman (Crowe), but the subtext of this, if any, was soft: the problem wasn't any systemic defect but rather just that Hoffman was an insufferable micromanager. The book mostly concentrated on the fascinating (albeit not terribly cinematic) nitty-gritty of CIA field work in the Middle East.
Scott and Monahan, on the other hand, decide to construct an angry, searing allegory about the handling of the War on Terror in general. Throughout the film, they pointedly juxtapose Ferris's involved, down-and-dirty field work in Iraq and elsewhere with Hoffman barking orders into a headset while pacing around his backyard or sending his kid off to school. Hoffman's orders must be followed – that's Ferris's job – but more often than not they lead to disaster: long-play operations are compromised, operatives are killed, the crucial trust of local allies (like the fearsome Jordanian intelligence chief Hani, played by a suitably charismatic Mark Strong) is lost. Hoffman has good intentions and decision-making authority, but he doesn't know what he's doing, and often doesn't seem to care. He has no real sense of what he's dealing with – just his myopic American objectives.
That's what makes Body of Lies the smartest post-9/11 film about Iraq and the War on Terror. It does not – like Jeffrey Nachmanoff's Traitor, for example – merely parrot the unhelpful talking point that the solution to Islamic extremism is Engagement and Understanding. Rather, it's a moving an eloquent call for competence: for doing your homework, for recognizing that the situation is complicated, for acknowledging that Iraq, Syria, Jordan, et al are populated by, y'know, people. Toward the end of the film, Crowe's Hoffman expresses incredulity at Ferris's apparent intention to stay in the Middle East instead of returning home. "I like it here," says Ferris, and Hoffman gawks: "This is the Middle East. There's nothing here to like." Ferris speaks for the film when he replies, "maybe that's the problem right there."
In this context, it's a bit surprising that Scott and Monahan chose to eliminate the character of Alice Melville, the American humanitarian aid worker and Ferris's love interest in the novel. A westerner who has a deep connection with the land and its people, and extremely effective at what she does, she could have helped drive home the point. Instead, the film gives us a cute Iranian nurse, and eliminates altogether the character of Ferris's scheming wife Gretchen (originally to be played by Carice Van Houten).
In any case, maybe a different adaptation would have given WB's marketing department more to work with. And maybe had this one not come in the midst of a financial meltdown and a dramatic election season, viewers would have been game for something substantial instead of Beverly Hills Chihuahua. But it didn't happen that way. I really think there was a major Hollywood blockbuster inside David Ignatius's Body of Lies. William Monahan and Ridley Scott just chose to leave it there.