Monday, October 06, 2008

Do I Really Believe This?

I like the trailers for 'Body of Lies' but there's a problem with this type material. You never know what you can believe and what's pure Hollywood hyperbole. Take the above clip -- a standard car chase except it's supposed to be the real thing. That is, instead of Bond or Bourne in a firefight barely escaping a sticky situation it's a real-life CIA operative. Or, more precisely, the chase is something we're expected to accept could happen and has happened in real CIA day-to-day work.

There must have been times when a CIA operative experienced this kind of thing. The problem is obvious though. CIA work is secret, so how would we know. 'Body of Lies' is based on the novel of the same name by David Ignatius, who is an Op-Ed columnist with The Washington Post. Ignatius has covered international politics including CIA operations for years. I'll bet he's had CIA guys tell him stories over a couple beers about events such as the one in the clip. But, again, how do we know? Possibly, such a car chase happened yesterday, but it wasn't in any news report. If such events are covered up out of the need for secrecy, fine. So be it. If they're not reported in the news because they never happened... Well, how do we know the difference?

Photo: still from Black Hawk Down

The director of 'Body of Lies', Ridley Scott, also gave us the excellent 'Black Hawk Down', taken from the book by Mark Bowden, which is based on real events that were reported worldwide. It's easy to get swept up in the action in this movie. Even mundane stuff like soldiers going thirsty because they didn't think to bring enough water feels real. More conventional war movie action, like seeing a door a soldier is hiding next to shot full of holes, elicits a visceral response. The point being: if 'Black Hawk Down' were a work of fiction the screenwriter would be criticized for coming up with such a lame plot element as 'they go thirsty because they forgot to bring enough water', or something so predictable as having a door with bullet holes. But, because it really happened it hits home -- the audience feels the absurdity of having to fight for your life while suffering from extreme thirst and sympathizes with a soldier who is hiding next to a door full of bullet holes.

Photo: still from The Bourne Ultimatum

It's hard to take 'Body of Lies' as seriously. Here, a high-speed chase where the protagonist shoots at bad guys with an automatic weapon and manages to survive RPG fire (with the help of American military helicopter gunships) plays much more like Hollywood fluff than the real thing. It's like Bourne but not as good because the action isn't juiced enough. It's like Black Hawk but not as believable because, well, we don't know whether such stuff happens -- not for sure. The clip from 'Body of Lies' is exciting, no doubt about it. The problem isn't that, it's how to react to it. Do we enjoy the rush while munching popcorn like it's a Bourne action flick, or do we watch soberly like it's something some poor brave slob had to live through? I think we're expected to do both and I'm not sure too many people are interested in that. They want one type of movie or the other -- not a mix. I feel a little gullible and a little guilty accepting the action in 'Body of Lies' at face value. Perhaps, it doesn't help that the movie has the word 'lies' in its title.

I think audiences will sense that and avoid 'Body of Lies'. I hope I'm wrong, but still. And, that's not the only thing that might keep crowds away. This movie has other issues. It deals with terrorism, the Middle East, makes people think of the wars we're into, and has sequences where intelligence agents torture a suspect for information. Not a very appealing recipe, especially these days, and especially if it's supposed to be based on reality. Making it worse -- (from what I've heard) the novel on which the movie is based has a very convoluted plot. How, exactly, do you sell 'Body of Lies' to your friends at work over the water cooler on Monday morning?

This weekend, audiences may prefer family fare like 'City of Ember', or the predictable feel-good sports picture 'The Express', or even the purely escapist 'Quarantine'. I wouldn't expect 'Body of Lies' to do well next weekend going up against 'Max Payne', 'W.', and 'Sex Drive'.

I'm looking forward to 'Body of Lies' but I think it suffers from bad timing and a contradictory tone.

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