A bit of sibling rivalry which pits center-court the question of “intelligent design” in the star-driven blockbuster, Ridley Scott's Body of Lies (2008) desires to simultaneously serve and consume its cake.
Markers of identification allow release into a paranoid political matrix of ambition, greed and star-crossed love (and, inevitably, hatred). The Scott brothers are masculine vessels of bombastic control, and they bat back and forth high-concepts gleaned from the epic narrative of divide and conquer. Whether explicitly serio-political or gleefully apolitical, each makes movies for the American Man. The female protagonists are sexualized objects of a testosterone fantasy - they vessel and employ the tactics of a quotable definition of man to be the Woman. In Lies, Ridley replays with earnestly entrenched determination the father-son spy games of younger brother Tony’s late 90s tech-thriller, Spy Game (2001), starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. Here, the dynamics are inevitably more complicated, incorporating the sinister desires of man and his work. Man in motion, seeking the golden arrow of salvation. This is a delivery process, but Master & Commander is the operating vice. We deliver the delivery. The solution. Because we know. This dystopic sci-fi idea of the all-seeing ever pervasive in cultural creation since the Bush administration’s policies of national security took on the traits of our (fiction/once fantastic) nationalist nightmare, is the transmitter of story here.
In Body of Lies, we zoom in from satellite to open, and pullout to close. This tool of elusive control discovers our righteous hero – shaggy dog pasted over the perpetual boyishness of CIA ground op Leonardo DiCaprio, the pawn who has masked himself as knight in order to steer the incompetence of detached authority. That “authority” is soft-bellied superior Russell Crow, ferrying his kids to school and the Sunday soccer games while negotiating his human chess pieces in the filth and fury thousands of miles away. The macho chameleon Crowe embodies the kind of magnetic identification that can both discard and embrace sexual vitality, sometimes simultaneously. Here, his schlubby bluster and poker’s face of criss-crossed deceit and veiled honesty recasts the oft-misunderstood maliciousness of imperialist Republican power as practical wisdom, the only strategy that allows the cycle of sacrifice – and thus work – to continue playing. Using unbelievably detailed satellite surveillance, Crowe follows DiCaprio’s giant shadow, winking big brother glimmers of light off the sand, an unending circle being tracked around an elusive American-educated terrorist (the Bin Laden stand-in). The actual terrain and its physical properties are the inessential, disposable chessboard in the name of American security. One would imagine that this ultra-realistic fantasia would allow the gracefully detailed visual tapestries of space, light and form which Ridley was once known, but the post-modern, progressive montage, once seen as passé in brother Tony’s surface-texture based lexicon, has become the “new real,” and allowed the wearied insignificance of found/hand-made action to replace the rigor of alternate reality creation. The old maneuvers are re-traced as new paradigms, and take on a fiction unwinking in its politics of deception. Chaos of composition and montage shifts us away from cinematic narrative tropes, slave to the Western mandate of redemption and piety.
At this point in time, one may say that Tony’s mastery of deception has allowed a type of subversion that maddens the unexpected expected. The nonsensical becomes itself, twisted, torn, burned and soaked with Aggression. Speed is a nihilistic life force that devours the structure of character and story, and becomes brilliantly visceral, brilliantly alone --- access is only available through a series of signs that ultimately lead through trapdoors. One emerges from Domino or Man on Fire or Déjà Vu shorn of empathy. We feel ourselves the pods of effect. Whether this is intentional or perversely narcissistic, Tony at least understands the unadulterated violence of the cinematic image, and he shapes work that allows its unrestrained attack. In the late 70s and early 80s, Ridley was a supreme purveyor of the slow build – a resolutely avant-garde sense of time and space that enveloped in spheres where reality and the fantastic took on a familiarity that disrupted the hazy, presentational exotica of his commercial contemporaries. Works like Alien, Blade Runner, and even Legend were antagonistic high-concept movies, reversing the accessible motivations and satisfactions. In recent years, the conventions of the high concept have overtaken his detailed spatial identity – the unexpected becomes an expected. The avant-garde gesturing has now been transferred to Tony. In Body of Lies, Ridley’s fatuous need for us to understand the dramatic push points, an immersion becomes a hostile endeavor. We sort of become stuck in a limbo, floating with that spy satellite.