Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Movie Review: Fair Game

Fair Game ***
Directed by:
Doug Liman.
Written By: Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth based on books by Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame.
Starring: Naomi Watts (Valerie Plame), Sean Penn (Joe Wilson), David Andrews (Scooter Libby), Ty Burrell (Fred), Jessica Hecht (Sue), Norbert Leo Butz (Steve Norbert), Rebecca Rigg (Lisa), Brooke Smith (Diana), Thomas McCarthy (Jeff), Ashley Gerasimovich (Samantha Wilson), Quinn Broggy (Trevor Wilson), Michael Kelly (Jack McAllister), Noah Emmerich (Bill Johnson), Bruce McGill (Jim Pavitt), Adam LeFevre (Karl Rove), Polly Holliday (Diane Plame), Sam Shepard (Sam Plame).

Valerie Plame got screwed over – of that can be little doubt no matter what you think of the War in Iraq or her husband, Joe Wilson. She was a covert CIA Agent – only her husband and parents knew what her job actually was. Her husband was a former ambassador trying to make a living as a consultant in Washington, when the CIA approached him in the weeks after 9/11 about going to the African nation of Niger to see if it was possible that they had supplied yellow cake uranium to Iraq, and British intelligence had suggested. He went, thought it was impossible and told them. A few months later, he heard Bush at the State of the Union still saying that Iraq had tried to buy yellow cake from Niger. Eventually, tired of lies, he wrote an article for the New York Times, which started a media firestorm. In response, Scooter Libby, the Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, leaked the story that his wife was a CIA agent.

Fair Game, the new film by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identiry, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) is an interesting story that tells Wilson and Plame’s side of the story. It is based on the two books they wrote – separately – about the incident. It paints them in a positive light, and Libby is seen pretty much as an evil guy. Liman stops short of suggesting that anyone else was involved in the plot – but it strongly implies that at least Karl Rove was.

The film can be split into two different sections – before and after. I enjoyed the first part of the movie more, which concentrated on Plame and her role as a CIA Agent. This isn’t like most spy movies we see – with jet setting glamourous locations and shoot outs, but a more realistic approach. Naomi Watts does an excellent job in the role of Plame as she builds trust with her contacts, and tries to get to the truth of the matter in front of her. We do see some push back even in these scenes – with Libby constantly coming down to the CIA offices and questioning the staff, trying to get them to doubt themselves because most of them believe (correctly it turned out) that Iraq had no WMDs, and no program to try and produce them.

The second half concentrates more on Wilson, what he did, and how he defends himself and his wife when she refuses to speak after the story breaks. Sean Penn obviously relishes the opportunity to play a man openly critical of the Bush administration, but he hardly makes Wilson into a zealot. The movie paints him as a man who has strong opinions – and seemingly the need to share those opinions with anyone who will listen. He cannot even control himself at dinner with friends.

The heart of the movie is the performances by Watts and Penn. What is fascinating is they seem to take opposite approaches to the material, and yet appear to effortlessly embody a long standing married couple. Watts’ performance is largely internal – she tries her best not to give her emotions away, whether its with a contact, being questioned at the office, or as her life crumbles down around her. Penn on the other hand attacks the role – he relishes his numerous speeches and goes at them full bore. If you have to read Watts’ face to read her emotions, no such thing is needed with Penn – he tells you right to your face.

What surprised me is how honest the movie seems to be about these two people. Watts doesn’t really portray Plame as a heroine in a thriller – even in some of the early scenes where the movie seemingly tries to paint her that way. It is honest about the cost this had on their life and their marriage – at one point Plame has all but left Wilson. For his part, the movie sees Wilson as a man who relishes the attention. Before the story breaks, we see him speaking to a largely empty room of college students about his time in Iraq in the early 1990s. No one cares what he has to say. One article comes out, and he is all of sudden everyone, speaking to packed houses and loving every minute of it. He did what he did, at least in part, to get attention.

The film is intelligent, well made and well acted from beginning to end. But curiously, it was also rather unaffecting on an emotional level as well. Perhaps its because we see Wilson and Plame, and their two beautiful children and their nice house, and have a hard time really seeing them as victims – when the real victims are largely left off screen. (The movie tries to paint a picture of Plame’s work with scientists in the Iraqi nuclear program, but doesn’t really pull it off effectively). Yet it remained a fascinating movie to me – one that kept me involved from beginning to end. Not a great movie, but an interesting one nonetheless.

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