Mark Metcalf

Two ways to run an agent

By - Mar 19th, 2009 09:00 am
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Body of Lies

Body of Lies stars Russell Crowe doing an accent.  He’s done a lot of accents lately:  New York City Irish cop in American Gangster, also directed by Ridley Scott; American cowboy in 3:10 To Yuma; and Virginia family man here, again directed by Ridley Scott.  He also apparently put on 66 pounds to play this character, a lead analyst in the CIA, living in affluence in Virginia, running an agent in Jordan by phone while he picks the kids up at soccer practice in the Lexus.  It may not be a Lexus and it may not be soccer, it may be ballet, but it is definitely suburban; we are never allowed to forget that.  The contrast between the agent in the field, sleeping on floors, sussing out IED’s, being tortured, speaking different dialects of the native language and the boss who processes the intelligence and directs the agent into more and more dangerous situations is made clear every time Crowe is on screen.  It’s about all that is made clear.

I find Crowe’s acting to be increasingly like a man who goes to a big closet and picks, first an accent, then a few physical mannerisms, the hair, a walk, something to do with his hands.  He puts on a character the way you might put on a suit of clothes, but the clothes always have that new clothes look, they haven’t been worn enough to feel owned.  And ownership is what brings authenticity, and that is what makes a character in a situation believable.  Crowe’s partner, the man on the other end of the satellite phone, the agent in the field, the dog out sniffing up the terrorists, is played by Leonardo DeCaprio, again working against type to play a grown man, doing a tough job, in a dangerous environment.  I know he can grow facial hair, or at least wear a wig and beard well, but that doesn’t quite get him over the hump fully into manhood.  There’s something about the whine that gets into his voice when he becomes excited that holds him back and makes him still a boy pretending to do a man’s job.  He tries on accents too, going a little Southern once in a while during the course of the film.   But consistency is a problem with DeCaprio.

Ridley Scott has worked with Russell Crowe several times, all the way back to Gladiator. He has also made some films that should be in anyone’s best all time list:  Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise.  And one of the best of the modern war films:  Black Hawk Down. He knows his way around an action sequence and can tell a story in a compelling way.

Body Of Lies is certainly the high-rent version of how Middle East intelligence operations work.  Two major stars, an A-list director and a script by the man who wrote Departed, William Monahan, will get you a big budget and a nice release pattern.  Why then did it fail?  The movie stars in other successful Ridley Scott films were either on their way up or they weren’t A-list at the time he worked with them.  This time it may simply be a case of Crowe and DeCaprio being so charismatic and so deeply into being movie stars that Scott cannot and therefore we cannot see around that to see the men whom they portray in the story.

I also think that it is confusing to see a glossy, somewhat typical Hollywood movie about a war and a situation that is still going on and that probably still does endanger us all.  I want to know more about the middle east and the various wars that are being fought in my name there and the intelligence operations that may or may not have gotten us involved in said wars, but I want to believe that the information I’m getting is real, from a source that is trustworthy, and the flashy Hollywood movie with a shoot out or an explosion every twenty minutes according to formula is not a source that I have grown to trust.

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Traitor does a better job of convincing me that it could actually happen.  Even though Don Cheadle’s character, Samir, makes a couple of bonehead mistakes that no self respecting Hollywood version of a spy would make, I believe that in the circumstance a man might make the wrong decision, even knowing that he would regret it later.  Scott in an interview in the bonus features of Body Of Lies makes the point that the man in the field sees only what is in front of him whereas the man running the agent sees, or is expected to see, the big picture.  Of course he is also subject to political expediency and more capable of self-delusion because he has more time to indulge in it.  The ending of Traitor is a little hard to buy, but I won’t spoil it because there is genuine tension building up to it.

Much of the reason I find Traitor more trustworthy is that Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce stand inside the film, they are part of the story, and they wear their clothes as if they owned them, not like movie stars dressing up for a part.  Traitor also gets me closer to the life of an Islamic man.  Cheadle’s character was born in the Middle East of a Muslim family, raised in the United States, worked as a soldier and now appears to have gone rogue and is selling arms to the terrorists.  Cheadle is a very accessible actor.  I don’t question for a moment his devotion to Islam and he plays the edge very well.  I am not sure until almost the end which side he is playing and who is playing him.

However, even a film that is convincing makes me a little uncomfortable in the wrong way.  I’m not sure if Hollywood, or anyone, should be picking over the bones of a war and a situation that is ongoing and that may be getting worse, as our involvement now heads back to the source in Afghanistan. The fact that 24 has been doing it for six or seven seasons does not make it alright.  If the effort is to elucidate and enlighten not merely to entertain then a case can be made for making up stories about it.  I fear that Body Of Lies is meant as entertainment alone and Traitor, which may have had more honorable intentions, abandons them by the end in search of the American dollar.

Categories: Movies, VITAL

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