Conspiring to make a hit movie
Suffice IT to say that Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott agree to disagree about certain principles of the Geneva Conventions.
“If I’m going to get down to brass tacks, there’s no rules,” Scott exclaimed, sitting on the sun-drenched deck of his West Hollywood production company. He was speaking hypothetically about his willingness to use torture to extract information from a suspected terrorist -- a pivotal plot point in the knighted British director’s political thriller “Body of Lies.” The film, starring DiCaprio and Russell Crowe as CIA operatives out to smash terror cells in the Middle East, reaches theaters Oct. 10.
“If I want to get the information out of somebody, I have to do it,” Scott continued. “And it makes it a lot easier if that person put a bomb in a square or blew up a bunch of kids. I’d definitely take a cricket bat to him.” He glanced over at DiCaprio for confirmation. “Right?”
DiCaprio clamped his lips together, averted eye contact and almost imperceptibly shook his head no. Awkward moment, anyone? The hard-charging director suddenly reversed course. “Never let me be the head of any counter-terrorist organization,” Scott said, chuckling.
Adapted by William Monahan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Departed,” from Washington Post columnist David Ignatius’ intricately plotted espionage novel of the same name, “Body of Lies” presents the most stinging screen portrayal of American foreign policy by any Hollywood studio movie in recent memory. DiCaprio portrays Roger Ferris, an idealistic field agent operating out of Iraq and Jordan who resorts to elaborate subterfuge -- concocting a fictitious sleeper cell and staging a mock bombing -- to flush a terrorist mastermind out into the open.
Crowe plays Ed Hoffman, the veteran stateside CIA bureaucrat who thwarts Ferris’ progress at every turn with his own covert missions and unquenchable thirst for power. And along the way, American spies torture a suspect (yes, with a cricket bat), innocent people’s lives are ruined via satellite downlink and foreign nationals who cooperate with the agents wind up being sacrificed in the name of homeland security. “Welcome to Guantanamo Bay,” hisses one would-be torturer in the movie.
It’s a deliberate throwback to Nixon-era conspiracy thrillers, films that spotlighted American political skulduggery and corruption. “To make a highly intelligent film with today’s politics: That was the objective,” DiCaprio said. “This movie could -- not necessarily say something about the state of the world, but -- take grasp of where we are in history right now.”
Arriving in the climactic days of an election year, however, at a time when public fatigue with war on two fronts is at an all-time high, “Body of Lies” might be a hard sell. As DiCaprio and Scott seem only too aware, a spate of earlier films set in and around the social fallout of the Iraq war -- “Rendition,” “Stop-Loss,” “The Kingdom” and “In the Valley of Elah” -- failed to connect with audiences.
“It is a failed subject matter in the sense that none of those films has been successful,” DiCaprio said. “But whether [‘Body of Lies’] was going to be commercial or not was never a factor. It’s the opportunity that we get to make this movie. You feel lucky to get to do it. The audience can get involved while simultaneously getting insight into what the United States is doing in the Middle East.”
Scott was more blunt. “Do I think it’s a commercial movie? My gut tells me it’s a commercial movie,” he said. “I think a lot of those Iraq war movies were jingoistic. This one isn’t jingoistic. The audiences smell that.”
The film offers plenty of other visceral stimulation as well, tautly paced around shootouts, car chases and lushly photographed explosions courtesy of cinematographer Alexander Witt.
Big ideas too.
Known for his crusading efforts as an environmentalist with a growing affinity for appearing in issue-oriented films (2006’s “Blood Diamond” is plotted around how so-called conflict diamonds fuel civil war in sub-Saharan Africa), DiCaprio says he checked his political agenda at the door when he signed onto the project. But researching his character with a former head of the CIA (whom the actor declined to name) and coming to understand something of how agency operations are run in the Middle East gave him a new perspective on the peace process.
“You don’t want anyone to leave with a moral judgment when they see a movie like this,” DiCaprio said. “But the more we did the movie, the more we got involved with the day-to-day operations of the CIA -- you realize what they’re undertaking. The thought of stopping this in one or two wars? In 10, 20 years? If there’s any moral message to the movie, it’s that we’ve bitten off so much more than we can chew.”
For his part, Scott said that since filming his 2001 historical war thriller “Black Hawk Down,” he’s felt obligated to make movies that are “about something.” Coming off the smash-hit success of last year’s “American Gangster,” he intends “Body of Lies” to voice certain hard truths about the United States -- even if that means ruffling some feathers in his adopted country.
“I’m not American. I’ve been here in the U.S. all my career, and over the last 30 years things have changed dramatically,” Scott said. “It’s an evolution, a softening process. We’re not as hard as we were. We’re way too accepting of political situations that are, frankly, outrageous. Don’t you agree?”
Again, the director looked to DiCaprio. “Is this going to get us in trouble?” Scott asked.
DiCaprio didn’t miss a beat. “Is this movie going to get us in trouble?”
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Acting can be a torturous process
For AN excruciating sequence in “Body of Lies” in which his covert operative character is tortured by terrorists, Leonardo DiCaprio had to psyche himself up for months prior to filming. But even with all his mental preparation, the experience of shooting in an old prison in Rabat, Morocco, left him sickened and spent. “We did that in the middle of some medieval torture tomb. There was some kind of horrific dust in the air,” DiCaprio recalled. That combination of the intense physical and mental stress of the scene, coupled with the dust particles lodging in his lungs, left DiCaprio worse for the wear. “I got sick for two or three days afterward because of the intense energy it took.”