Heartless Darkness


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Paul Newman’s passing casts a shadow over Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe’s performances in Body of Lies. This spy/mercenary flick feels like a eulogy—a slick, cynical death knell—for Newman’s ideal: the morally charismatic movie star. As CIA field agent Roger Ferris and his Langley, Va., boss Ed Hoffman, DiCaprio and Crowe shed the recognizable moral unease that made Newman a universally beloved film actor. Body of Lies forces us to watch DiCaprio and Crowe portray intensely unlikable professionals—a hands-on killer and a white-collar killer. It’s unsubtly implied that they’re doing our government’s shameful bidding; America’s dirty work exposes their tainted souls. Besides DiCaprio’s brief flush of guilt, nothing else is revealed.


The stars of Body of Lies lack the moral stability Newman evinced even when playing a cynical Korean War vet in The Rack (1956). They indulge a facile ugliness (Ferris outsmarting swarthies, Hoffman enjoying the American Dream while giving out lethal commands) that acts out post-9/11 distress. These actors readily don masochistic psychological garb but neglect the idealism that prompts people to become agents and soldiers. Vain professionals, DiCaprio and Crowe glamorize what French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut has described as the “penitential narcissism that makes the West guilty of even that which victimizes it.” Their twisted American self-hatred is established in the film’s prologue that identifies U.S. Middle-East policy as mere vengeance.


It takes Ridley Scott to push this turpitude as entertainment. The Bourne-like plot shuttles DiCaprio and Crowe, either bodily or by satellite, to Iraq, Jordan, England, Amsterdam, Dubai and Turkey. No James Bond travelogue has looked this sleek (there’s a beautiful rectangular composition of a plane landing on a tarmac with mirage-like black-and-green striations). Ultra-hack Scott has refined his pictorial style into obscenely impersonal depictions of warfare: nifty bomb F/X and sadistic views of wounds that vie with exotic locales. In order to have a hit, Scott amps-up violence, overwhelming the political subject. He doesn’t distill to genre essence—which structures meaning as in Philip G. Atwell’s underrated War. This is just more post-9/11 trauma.


Trauma being a word for damaged tissue, Body of Lies demonstrates the corruption of movie-star ethics in the post-Newman age. DiCaprio and Crowe inspire distaste and disdain—reversing the sympathy of Newman’s greatest roles which once were described as “anti-heroes” (in The Hustler, Hud, Hombre, Buffalo Bill and the Indians). When Pauline Kael complained, “No one should be asked to dislike [Newman’s Buffalo Bill],” she missed that Newman actually made the character “likable” to more deeply understand a reviled historical figure. But DiCaprio and Crowe curry political contempt. Their espionage involves oily dealings with Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID) agent Hani Salaam (British actor Mark Strong slithering like Andy Garcia). For all these actors, Newman’s emotional connection (his popular belief in political virtue) is a thing of the past. Even when Leo falls in love with a Palestinian nurse, he doesn’t fulfill our political or romantic mandate.


DiCaprio might have brought charisma to Robert De Niro’s complex CIA drama The Good Shepherd, but here he’s simply an American sinner with no chance for redemption. Collaborating with a director who doesn’t give a damn, DiCaprio and Crowe have made a political action flick totally without emotional impact; it merely scolds: Leo’s big moment of penitential narcissism is announced “Welcome to Guantanamo!” A heartless counteragent then specifies, “It’s not torture; it’s punishment.” He could be describing this hateful movie.


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