The Return of the Old-Fashioned Thriller

Body of Lies seems like a throwback to all those morally ambiguous Cold War thrillers of the 1970s where American or British agents confronted the more or less monolithic Russian or East German intelligence services. Back then the protagonists agonised over possible “moles in the circus” (most famously in the mini-series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) based on a novel by former MI6 officer John Le Carré) and how the so-called free world’s tactics were as bad as, or worse than, those of the KGB or the Stasi.

The difference in Body of Lies appears to be that instead of the action switching from Washington or London to some European location, the men in the field now operate in the Middle East and the “enemies” are terrorists. There is a lot of hectic action. Cars are driven at high speed through crowded markets, and better still, across desert wastes with all those dust trails for cinematographer Alexander Witt’s cameras—sometimes as many as ten on director Ridley Scott’s locations. And there are plenty of shoot-outs in the style of the director’s Black Hawk Down. But look closer and you find a very different film.

According to my favourite spook, former ASIS officer Warren Reed, Body of Lies brilliantly portrays the gulf between the field operative, Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his controller, Hoffman (Russell Crowe). While Ferris plays a cat-and-mouse game with terrorists, his colleagues in Jordan, and Hani (Mark Strong), the head of Jordanian intelligence, Hoffman tries to micro-manage everything using satellite phones—a headset is an almost permanent fixture in most of his scenes—and an array of drones and satellite cameras. At first this seems very impressive as Hoffman peers over his spectacles at his wife and family, takes his son to the bathroom, and observes Ferris on a gigantic screen, all the while snapping out a stream of instructions to his men in the field. Then we realise that despite his spurious realism—no one is innocent, anything is permissible in the war against terror—the man is a blundering menace.

Screenwriter William Monahan, who adapted the script from David Ignatius’s novel, says:

“Hoffman is really an American archetype … the American bureaucrat who never does anything right and never gets punished for it. You can put him anywhere you like—executive, editor, your boss down at the sewer department. One of those guys who manages to rise and rise while never accomplishing anything …”

Warren Reed insists that you can probably find men like Hoffman in just about every intelligence department in the world; certainly in the USA and Australia.

Predictably, Russell Crowe goes beyond the details of the everyday life that surround the character in the script to suggest he is using these extraneous activities to insulate himself from the horrors of his job. When he first discussed the part with Crowe, Ridley Scott told the actor that he saw Hoffman as overweight with footballer’s knees, yet retaining a kind of grace. Crowe executes all of this perfectly. Reportedly the actor gained the necessary bulk by taking little or no exercise and appears to have allowed his superb natural co-ordination to do the rest. Consequently the character is always formidable—a dangerous mediocrity—with Crowe chilling in the scenes where he portrays the ugly American abroad; especially when you realise what such attitudes have led to in Iraq.

Inevitably the heart of Body of Lies is the emotional journey of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ferris. When I discussed the film with Reed he suggested the character might be based on Robert Baer, a CIA operative who left the agency in disgust when they started replacing agents on the ground with electronic surveillance. (Like Baer, Reed believes this was a major cause of the intelligence foul-ups that led to 9/11.)

Of course, as a major columnist on the Washington Post, David Ignatius, the author of the original novel, would have among his sources many of the best and the brightest ex-CIA operatives, many of whom have become some of the Bush administration’s most acute critics, and he may also have borrowed some of their attributes for the character. Certainly Ferris’s disillusionment with the agency and all that it represents is far from unique in the real world.

In the film we first discover the character at the centre of a fire fight being closely monitored by Hoffman. As well as being badgered by his controller, Ferris gets a call from his lawyer: “she wants the house”. As with most modern action heroes, his private life is a mess. He is also haunted by his participation in the death under torture of a suspected terrorist. (Mercifully, this is covered in flash cuts.) Then Ferris becomes the key agent in the search for an Osama bin Laden-type terrorist network responsible for a series of bombings in Europe and the Middle East.

Jordanian intelligence is superior to anything the Americans are doing in the Middle East, Ferris tells his dangerously jealous colleagues at the embassy, so he is going to co-operate with Hani. From here on the film becomes an exploration of trust, betrayal and manipulation as Ferris comes to understand and respect his Jordanian allies and distrust his boss. A nice touch suggested by Scott was to change the nationality of the American’s girlfriend from French in the novel, to Jordanian, and to give their encounters the restraint and decorum of a traditional Muslim relationship where the couple can’t even shake hands until they are engaged.

As station chief in Cairo before he was compromised by a Hoffman-like diplomat, Reed encountered many Arabic intelligence officers who were as professional and dangerous as Mark Strong’s Hani is in the movie. The Jordanians were particularly impressive, he recalls. Above all, knowing when to trust your allies and keeping your word, Reed believes, is vital for good intelligence work, and the film’s treatment of these issues is impeccable.

Like Scott’s previous film, American Gangster, the build-up to the final resolution is rushed. Again this may not be the fault of the director. The director’s cut on the special edition DVD of American Gangster is far superior to the theatrical release: so once again Scott may have encountered producers or distributors addicted to action scenes who live in fear of the audience’s supposedly short attention span. Anyway, DiCaprio is splendid in the powerful climax and achieves exactly the right combination of toughness and vulnerability needed to make Ferris credible.

Russell Crowe has said that when he first read the script he did not expect American audiences to like Body of Lies, and the film has already received one poisonously unfair review in the New York Times. But Body of Lies is a fine work that gets most of its tradecraft right and embodies valuable insights into how to combat terrorism. The plot is virtually a demonstration of what the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, stated in 2006 in an article he wrote with Tom Quiggen, an expert on jihadism. Terrorist groups do not have the structures of the kind of intelligence organisations MI6 and the CIA confronted in the past, they insisted, so frontline investigators, not the central bureaucracies, are the ones best placed to assess intelligence data. In addition, they argued that if agencies are to recruit good sources, “counter-terrorists have to retain the moral high ground”.

It is not for nothing that the film begins with Auden’s lines from “September 1, 1939”:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

Gone Baby Gone, just released on DVD, is also about evil, the neglect and abuse of children, a recurring theme in the work of Dennis Lehane, the author of the original novel. Lehane is best known as the writer of the book on which Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River was based. But he is also the author of the Kenzie and Gennaro thrillers that are in the great tradition of the American private eye novels. The characters are loosely based on a real husband-and-wife detective team operating in Boston. (A snapshot of them rather alarmingly pointing guns at the camera was featured in the long version of the opening of the film version of Gone Baby Gone that can be found on the special edition DVD.)

In the novels they are partners and sometimes lovers who have grown up together in the tough Dorchester area of Boston where Lehane himself was raised. Like New York in Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels or 1940s Los Angeles in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, Boston itself is a character in just about all of the Kenzie–Gennaro books. The descriptions of various neighbourhoods in the city read more like reportage than the poetic realism of Block and Chandler. This, I suspect, is quite deliberate. Lehane may be influenced by predecessors like Block, but he has no desire to imitate them. Lehane’s homage, in his novel Sacred, to Geoffrey Homes’ script for the Jacques Tourneur film Out of the Past, is a strikingly original take on both the movie and Build My Gallows High, the book on which it was based; and Sacred is refreshingly free of the allusions to the classics employed by Robert B. Parker and Joe Gores. (The latter are great fun, but equally enjoyable are the subtle themes and variations Lehane works on Out of the Past in Sacred.)

Gone Baby Gone is the fourth of the five Kenzie–Gennaro novels Lehane has written to date and arguably the most complex. Each of the twists and turns in the novel and film involve discoveries about character and motive, so I don’t want to say too much about the plot except that it is about the search for a lost child—two children as it turns out. (This is a film that demands at least a second viewing to see how really good the acting is.) The adaptation by first-time director Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard condenses the book’s plots and sub-plots while remaining true to Lehane’s characters and themes. At least one of the speeches Affleck and Stockard write for Kenzie is an improvement on the original, although some of the best dialogue in the film comes straight from the book.

I do have one reservation. As well as the mysteries, the series of novels portray Kenzie and Gennaro’s continuing love story, and by Gone Baby Gone they are thinking about having a child, which makes their search for the lost children very personal.

Affleck actually shot most of this but finally decided it slowed the narrative. The deleted scenes are included in the special features on the DVD and are well worth exploring as soon as you finish viewing the theatrical release. They are beautifully played by Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan and enhance what is already a very fine film.

Affleck directs Gone Baby Gone in a measured style that makes the most of Lehane’s complex characters. Reportedly he was greatly helped by ace cinematographer John Toll. The film is superbly photographed in the Dorchester area using many of the locals in bit parts and as extras. Here the film amplifies Lehane’s descriptions to create an ambience that is at once faithful to the novel and an enrichment of the original. Performances are uniformly excellent. Affleck and Monaghan make a splendid Kenzie and Gennaro while Ed Harris as the tormented cop Remy Bressant, and Morgan Freeman as the enigmatic Captain Jack Doyle inhabit rather than play their characters. Above all, Gone Baby Gone embodies arguably the most thoughtful exploration of child abuse to be found in any American film to date.

These reviews were written as the media reported a financial crisis that is supposed to be the worst since the crash of 1929. Back then the movies were less than thirty years old and sound film was in its infancy. Yet between 1929 and 1940 Hollywood produced some of the most incisive explorations of American society we have ever seen: films like Wild Boys of the Road, Baby Face, Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, Employees’ Entrance and, of course, The Grapes of Wrath. Did these great works help their audiences to come to terms with the brutal realities of what came to be known as the Great Depression?

Body of Lies and Gone Baby Gone belong to that great tradition of American protest films and are now probably more relevant than even their creators expected.

Neil McDonald writes: Warren Reed found the article by Sir Richard Dearlove and Tom Quiggen. Female Agents, reviewed in last month’s issue, is now available on DVD.

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