Although its Mideast trappings have become terribly familiar in any number of recent movies from Syriana to The Kingdom to director Ridley Scott’s own Black Hawk Down William Monaghan’s (The Departed) tight script still has pertinent things to say about the lies and deceptions inherent in our covert operations in the region. Cloaked in a cat and mouse thriller format the story centers on Roger Ferris (DiCaprio)--a top CIA operative fluent in the Arab language-- who roams from country to country trying to penetrate top secret terrorist cells and uncover plans for mayhem. In trying to smoke out a shadowy terrorist who has been directing a series of key bombings against civilian targets in Europe Ferris comes up with the ingenious idea to create a phony rival group that appears to be taking credit for the “real” Al Qaeda-type organization’s business. Complicating matters for Ferris is his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) back at CIA headquarters who sees the world in black and white and believes there is no such thing as going too far to achieve goals in the best interest of the U.S. Both must also deal with the head of Jordanian Intelligence Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) who recognizes that each is useful for his own counter-terrorism efforts. There are a LOT of explosions that keep getting in the way of the dramatics--and much of the Crowe/DiCaprio teaming is played out on opposite sides of a phone line. But Body of Lies incorporates a first-rate cast including many local Middle Eastern performers who make strong impressions. Crowe--adopting some sort of quasi-southern accent (apparently from Arkansas)--creates an amusing CIA boss who sees the world from one perspective--his. Juxtaposing his duties to family as well as America Crowe creates a full blooded portrait of a husband father and CIA lifer who thinks he knows all the answers. His few scenes when he is face to face with co-star DiCaprio are worth the wait and both stars play off each other with ease. DiCaprio is back in Blood Diamond territory here as a rogue operative using his own ingenuity to make a difference. His on-screen command of some Arabic phrases is unforced and impressive and he earns the audience’s empathy particularly when he winds up in well over his head. There are also some nice scenes opposite a Muslim nurse he strikes up a relationship with while in the hospital. Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani is beautiful and nicely understated in these moments. Strong who also is very fine in another of the week’s new releases RocknRolla is suave and powerful as the shrewd Jordanian Crowe and DiCaprio cross swords with. Other regional actors fill out their roles with uncommon authenticity. There can be no question Ridley Scott is a master of the film medium. Body of Lies moves very well and thanks to the Scott style manual has lots of urgency. Employing his usual use of multiple cameras getting simultaneous angles in every scene Scott doesn’t rely on actors having to do a lot of takes and in the process manages to give the film a documentary kind of feel. Although the filmmaking approach sometimes leads to more confusion than we would like it also puts us right in the center of the action. And there’s plenty of that. Working for the fourth time with Crowe the two clearly have a rapport and similar seat-of-the-pants way of working which DiCaprio seems to have picked up nicely. If this isn’t as impressive an overall achievement as Black Hawk Down it’s still an entertainment that is a cut above some of the other recent spate of Middle East-set thrillers. Locations are well used too with Northern Africa and specifically the Moroccan environs filling in for the some dozen countries identified on the screen.
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.