Running Time: 128mins
Rated: Rated MA15+ (strong violence)
This stylish espionage thriller, screened out of competition in the 2008 Venice International Film Festival, is based on a novel by David Ignatius who covered CIA operations and Middle Eastern affairs for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. This is a smart, well-crafted thriller with plenty of exciting action sequences into which Leonard DiCaprio, playing the role of an Arab-speaking CIA operative, Roger Ferris, throws himself with much gusto. Par for the course and part of the essence of the spy-thriller genre is the use of subterfuge and deception that causes problems for nearly everyone. There is a special twist to this movie, however, in that much of the deception turns round the machinations and manipulations of Ferris' own boss, Ed Hoffman (played by Russell Crowe), who works mostly from Washington to ensure success for his goals, even if that means betraying and sacrificing the agents he has in the field. Ferris is trying to penetrate the world of the terrorists in Morocco and he has to deal with layers of deception among the terrorists, but also deception perpetrated by Hoffman. Ferris formulates a plan to lure the terrorist leader, Al-Saleem ( played by Alon Aboutboul) into the open by making it appear that a fake organisation is as deadly as Al-Saleem's own.
The Director of this film, Ridley Scott, is a three-time Oscar nominee who has amassed an impressive executive team behind him to help him intelligently direct this political thriller. Not surprisingly, Scott plays up the psychological complexities of the spy world. What is most important to Scott (and to Ignatius in his novel, originally titled "Penetration') is the process of deception itself, rather than what happens to those who have been caught in its web. It is the interplay of the characters in their efforts to unravel deception from all sides that gives this thriller its particular edge. The tag-line of this movie is "Trust No-one, Deceive Everyone.' Most spy thrillers explore the first; few market themselves quite so cynically around the second.
Crowe who put on weight for his role gives a masterly performance as Hoffman, and DiCaprio, though not exactly right for Ferris, shows considerable talent in assimilating his voice and mannerisms to the demands of Moroccan language and life. His attraction to Aisha, a nurse in Morocco (played by the Iranian actress, Goldshifteh Farahani) shows sensitive appreciation of cultural expectations about emerging romantic attraction in a world where men are forbidden to touch unmarried women. Any certainty about moral principles and trust is almost entirely problematic in this film. To survive, Ferris has to mistrust Hoffman; Hoffman must deceive Ferris to win in his own terms; and Ferris chooses to lie to the Head of the Jordanian General Intelligence Department (played especially strongly by Mark Strong). Multiple levels of deception are needed to penetrate the enemy, but also to penetrate one's own country. That is not an easy message to pull off and the film doesn't altogether succeed in doing that - perhaps because the layers of subterfuge are too many.
As with most Ridley Scott movies, this film develops a fast pace and the momentum that is achieved benefits greatly by clever editing, good photography, and the use of eye-catching global locations. Action sequences abound such as the dash by Ferris through the market place in Morocco where he is attacked by rabid dogs, while he is tracked silently from above by means of a spy system that has been put in place, and watched, by Hoffman. A particularly nerve-wracking scene is the torture sequence in the Moroccan prison that occurs towards the end of the film, which some will find particularly unpleasant in its graphic display.
This thriller is bound to entertain, though the level of its violence seems unnecessary for the cynical message lying at its heart. But before one accepts the marketing tag-line for this movie, one has to answer the question: would one really want to live in the world that is created here, in which human trust is so irrelevant?
Warner Brother Out October 9, 2008
Peter W.Sheehan. Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.