8 November 2008 | EUyeshima
Intense Political Thriller Takes More Cues from Hollywood than the Current Middle East Crisis
The craftsmanship behind director Ridley Scott's 2008 convulsive political thriller is impressive, but having acts of terrorism drive an intentionally labyrinth plot reveals how they impede the story structurally, an insurmountable barrier that screenwriter William Monahan ("The Departed") can't seem to overcome. The movie's first half is all the more bewildering for all the double-crosses and cover-ups that serve to set up the central situation. Based on Washington Post columnist David Ignatius' 2007 novel, the movie focuses on embedded CIA operative Roger Ferris who is on an undercover assignment to hunt an Al-Qaeda terrorist leader named Al-Saleem. Ferris is not entirely alone as he is connected via cell phone with his stateside boss Ed Hoffman, who is the head of the CIA's Near East division and directs Ferris toward life-threatening tasks in a most nonchalant manner from his upscale suburban home.
The plot's impetus is driven by the elusive Al-Saleem's unblinking series of suicide bombings in Europe in response to the invasion by US and UK troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The movie gets more interesting when Ferris decides to work with Jordanian intelligence director Hani Salaam, an erudite, enigmatic figure who is well entrenched in the Middle East militia and appears to take a page from Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" when it comes to loyalty and betrayal. Of course, it's a matter of course that Ferris' loyalty is tested when an elaborate plan is hatched to create a bogus competing terrorist group and use an unwitting Dubai architect as the head. The other complicating factor is that Ferris has fallen for pretty Iranian nurse Aisha when he gets treated for possible rabies at a clinic. It becomes inevitable that she also becomes a pawn in the political intrigue. Scott paints his canvas with a lot of graphic violence from large-scale bombings to more intimate acts of torture.
All of the external elements are fitting, but they can't seem to masquerade the convoluted and often cliché-ridden plot at the film's core. A solid cast goes a long way to compensate for the plot holes. As Ferris, Leonardo DiCaprio applies his trademark wiry energy to an intensely compelling performance that could have shown a bit more variety. Adding fifty belly-stretching pounds to his frame, Russell Crowe, Scott's favorite leading man ("Gladiator", "American Gangster", "A Good Year"), plays the Arkansan Hoffman as a scene-stealing character part. The irony is that the Australian actor's Southern accent is more convincing than DiCaprio's. Their antagonistic interplay, played out mostly on the phone, is rather predictably developed. Fetching Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani provides gratefully calm relief to the ongoing mayhem as Aisha, although her character comes across as a mere plot device. There is a nicely fractious dinner table scene with Ferris and her judgmental older sister, although the movie plays down the more human-size hostilities in favor of the pyrotechnics.
As Hani, Mark Strong ("Sunshine", "Stardust") leaves the most vivid impression of the cast but for the most old-fashioned of cinematic reasons - he plays what could be a villainous figure as a suave, mysterious man of honor who is completely on top of his job, an intentional counterpoint, at least physically, to Crowe's slovenly Hoffman. The film's resolution defies credibility, but it finally becomes clear that Monahan is not interested in exposing the factors that have driven the Middle East political maelstrom into acts of escalating terrorism. Rather, his screenplay shows that testosterone-driven Hollywood-style entertainment can take place anywhere.