Roger Ferris is a big ol’ fibber.
He is, after all, a spy, and Body of Lies would be a far different—and far shorter—film if Roger introduced himself to potential terrorists by saying, “Hi, I’m Roger, and I’m a CIA agent. Can you take me to your weapons cache, please?”
But Roger, even in the world of counterintelligence, seems to lie more than your average spy. He lies to his informants, to his partners and to his girlfriend. But then again, most everyone lies to him, too, so he’s game to call it even.
It’s for a good cause, he tells himself. In the War on Terror, Roger’s a true-blue crusader, willing to tell any number of lies to uncover the truth—assuming, of course, he can tell the difference. Currently he’s chasing an Osama bin Laden-style bad cat named Al-Saleem through the Middle East. Al-Saleem is an erudite terrorist mastermind who tells his followers, via DVD, that it’s time to go on a terrorist offensive: “We have bled,” he says in the video. “Now they will bleed and bleed until they are bled out.”
Al-Saleem, it seems, is one of the few folks in the movie who means what he says.
Roger comes by this bit of information through a one-time terrorist who decides he’d rather switch sides than become a martyr for Allah. Then Roger phones his D.C.-based boss, Ed Hoffman, for further instructions. Ed tells Roger the guy’s expendable: Drop him off and see who follows him.
“I just offered him asylum,” Roger says.
“Well, you lied, buddy,” Ed says.
Ed calls Roger “buddy” a lot. Naturally, he’s lying. But Ed’s not just a pro at dishonesty, he’s also incredibly adept at making poor decisions, most of which lead to dead bodies, compromised missions and deeply embarrassing moments for Roger.
Ed is the intelligence community’s version of Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. Hani, on the other hand, is the suave, well-tailored head of Jordanian intelligence. And he is Ed’s antithesis. While Ed hovers above the action, watching events via big-screen satellite images from a nice comfy office chair, Hani’s the guy on the ground—far more knowledgeable about what’ll work and what won’t. When Roger asks for help on a mission, Hani gravely insists that Roger be completely truthful with him when they’re working together. Roger solemnly promises he will.
Roger meets a cute female doctor named Aisha and treats her with respect, courtesy and affection. And when he thinks Aisha’s in peril, he goes to fanatical lengths to rescue her.
Despite some of his methods (read: lying), it seems to me that it’s still a positive thing for Roger to dedicate so much of his life to combating terrorism. He certainly clocks more than the typical 40-hour workweek while tracking down nefarious evildoers. Roger also feels genuinely bad when one of his partners is blown to smithereens.
Hani’s methods of “persuasion” are far more genteel than either Roger’s or Ed’s. He doesn’t believe in torture, telling Roger that, “Under torture, a man will say almost anything to make the pain stop.”
Body of Lies deals frankly with Islamic terrorism’s spiritual underpinnings, as well as the wider Muslim culture that surrounds it. Al-Saleem talks in religious language to his followers, and Roger and a terrorist engage in a back-and-forth debate as to whether killing people is lauded or condemned in the Quran. “So you misinterpret the one book you believe in,” Roger says.
We hear the good guys and bad guys say, “God is good” and make other religious statements. When one supposed terrorist apparently strikes a U.S. base in Turkey, dozens of terrorists e-mail him with congratulations—most of which say how he is blessed by God, and how much God will bless him for this great deed. Ed tells his supervisors that Islamic militants want “every infidel converted or dead.”
Most of the action takes place in Jordan, where women are allowed greater freedom than in, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran. Aisha’s hair is visible for most of the film, and she and Roger are allowed to walk along the streets of Amman without being accosted. That said, their budding relationship is clearly frowned upon. Several men glower at the couple as they drink coffee at a local restaurant.
Islamic propriety prevents the two from even shaking hands after they share lunch. The only time the couple actually touches is when Aisha gives Roger a couple of rabies shots at the local clinic.
We learn that Roger is getting divorced from his stateside wife. Ed, however, asks whether he’d like a few weeks off so he can have sex with her. One woman wears an evening dress with a dipping neckline. Several times a crass word is used for a critical part of the female anatomy.
Shortly after they meet, Hani leads Roger to a room where a naked man is being lashed across the buttocks. Roger comments that he didn’t think Hani believed in torture.
“This is punishment, my dear,” Hani says. “It’s a very different thing.”
It’s somehow appropriate, then, how this movie punishes its audience with some horrific sights. The worst of it takes place at the very end, when a terrorist takes a ball-peen hammer to an enemy’s fingers and smashes one of them clean off. Once that damage is done, terrorists untie the man, beat him viciously (part of his lip appears to be cut through) and prepare to gut him on a table.
Roger gets into a desert chase/firefight with SUV-driving baddies—a chase finally terminated by U.S. attack helicopters. Both of the terrorist SUVs are destroyed, as is Roger’s vehicle. The blast kills Roger’s partner and seriously wounds the spy himself. In the hospital, Roger regains consciousness and hears a doctor utter a profanity—seemingly upset that Roger will recover. Later, we see a doctor grotesquely pluck shrapnel out of Roger’s body. When Roger asks what it is, the doctor says, “Bone fragments. Not yours.”
Roger also gets mauled by a dog, and we see some serious puncture wounds on his leg. The subsequent shots he receives to prevent infection aren’t pretty to watch, either. “This is going to hurt,” Aisha says. Roger’s face is sometimes mottled by bruises, cuts and stitches.
But at least Roger survives … mostly. His adversaries are rarely so lucky, and audiences see him gun down dozens of terrorists in shoot-outs that send blood flying. We also see him in a dank room in which an apparent torture is taking place: A huge inquisitor beats a man with a paddle. Roger executes an informant to prevent him from revealing his identity, and he beats another man to death in an alley.
An explosion rips through a crowded flower market in Amsterdam. We’re asked to watch as the blast envelops its victims—at least 75, we learn later. Terrorists blow themselves up in an English apartment building, killing several police officers in the process. Another suicide bomber incinerates his own safe house. Still another explosion (this one staged) rocks Turkey. To augment the ruse, the target location is stocked with dead bodies (which audiences see being taken out of their body bags). Terrorists leave the body of an innocent man in a trash heap.
At least 50 f-words. Nearly 20 s-words. God’s name is linked with “d–n” more than a half-dozen times. Jesus’ name is abused almost as much.
Considering the fact that most of the film takes place in a country where alcoholic consumption is frowned upon, characters seem to do an awful lot of drinking (and smoking).
Ed takes his children to school and watches their soccer games, but he tells Roger that he should never have kids. We’re shown Ed helping his kindergarten-age son urinate into a toilet.
Body of Lies is all about knowledge: Not just what we know and what we don’t, but what we think we know but don’t. Ed thinks he knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t. Hani thinks he knows who to trust. He doesn’t. Roger thinks he knows what’s going on. He—well, you get the idea.
Which, frankly, may be a pretty accurate description of what happens when no one tells the truth. In the film’s Middle Eastern ethos, friendships and trust still matter. Yet its protagonists foster only enemies and suspicion. For us non-spies out there, that’s a valuable lesson.
But is this lesson taught more effectively here than in, say, VeggieTales’ Larry-Boy! & the Fib From Outer Space!? I think not. First, Larry-Boy is a likeable protagonist. Roger, in contrast, is kind of a twit. Larry-Boy does not gun down his adversaries in a bloody hail of bullets (not that he could hold the gun without any hands) or utter cascades of f-words. And I can’t think of any VeggieTales episode in which a veggie ties up another veggie and starts whacking off its extremities with a hammer.
No, VeggieTales and R-rated spy thrillers aren’t even close to an apples-to-apples comparison. But you get the point. Body of Lies is an overlong, overly disgusting actioner that, frankly, isn’t all that compelling. If someone tells you this is a “must-see” movie, don’t believe them. They’re lying.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.