By Joseph El-Khoury
Watching ‘Body of Lies’(2008) was like watching an updated version of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, except that the language is raw, the Toyotas had replaced the horses and Turkey is no longer a major player. Unfortunately the portrayal of the Middle East by film directors has barely evolved. While David Lean might have been excused in 1962, Ridley Scott’s vision smacks of laziness and repackaging. The narrative in blunt terms consist of: The Middle East is a hot and dusty place populated by a majority of semi ignorant and brutal individuals, mostly of the male variety. But even if we accept the usual Orientalist clichés as the only possible way for the Arab world to be represented in Western popular art, a number of puzzling elements still stand out in the scenario and the making of the movie. For these I am not sure whether to blame David Ignatius, the Washington Post ‘Middle East expert’ behind the book of the same name or Scott, who directed the movie. Again, the myth of the astute Westerner who blends into the local society by sporting a beard, learning the language and wearing traditional Bedouin garb is revisited. While Lawrence might have had a chance on a Camel, Leonardo emerging from a van to lure informers is far less convincing. Another interesting twist is that Agent Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) falls for a local woman and approaches her in a casual, almost callous manner, which must have gone against the Langley rule book. The woman in question is an unlikely character. The daughter of an Iranian exile, she works as a nurse in a Palestinian refugee camps. You get the sense that the character was designed to fit the actress (Golshiftheh Farahani) who originally hails from Iran. Her behaviour is even less likely. While she hesitates to shake the agent’s hand under the judging eyes of her neighbours, she happily chooses to sit with him in an open air popular cafe despite the stares of Arab manhood in the background. This uncomfortable attitude towards this culture is best exemplified by the choice of actors for indigenous characters. The main Arab ‘hero’ is Hani Salaam, chief of the Jordanian secret services, played by actor Mark Strong, born to an Italian father and Austrian mother (Wikipedia). Hollywood still struggles with fitting Arab actors to play central positive Arab roles. And while some Israelis are brought in to impersonate Arabs, every character played by an Arab actor (mostly Arab Israelis or North Africans) is either a villain or a victim. In terms of the broader lessons from the movie, the cavalier attitude of Ed Hoffman (good performance by Russell Crowe) is memorable. The Senior CIA operative is shown going about his middle class all American suburban life while organising targeted assassinations in Baghdad, destroying any illusion on the way the US behaves on foreign soils. I will not dwell on the plot since ‘Body of Lies’ is still a movie worth watching as adrenaline generating light entertainment, keeping in mind that the critics did find it quite predictable as a spy flick. But on every other count it is a forgettable enterprise, a bit like the Liberation of Iraq. It seems that those who advised Scott have much in common with those who advised Bush on the Middle East, resulting in a catalogue of errors.