Friday, November 12, 2010

Fair Game: Cheaters prosper

Fair Game (2010) • View trailer for Fair Game
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

I can’t imagine how he did it.

You’re wakened in the middle of the night by soft rustling and an empty spot in the bed; you hasten downstairs just in time to catch your wife quietly leaving, suitcase packed. She smiles apologetically, sorry to have bothered you, explains that all the necessary details for the next few days are on a note on the refrigerator.
After her life has been ruined by a heinous news leak, Valerine Plame (Naomi
Watts) and her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), argue over how best to
"fight back" ... and, indeed, whether it's even possible to successfully wage
a war of words against the White House.

You stare at each other. You finally break the silence, voicing the thoughts that must run through your mind every time this scenario takes place: Where are you going? How long will you be gone? How would I even know if something went wrong?

Her gaze softens; she pauses, then gives the answer that is part rote, part edict, part private joke: “I’m going to Cleveland.”

Except she isn’t, and you both know it.

Valerie Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson, must have repeated this ritual scores of times. She never went to Cleveland; as a member of the CIA’s covert ops team, she’d frequently wind up halfway around the world. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as leader of the agency’s Joint Task Force on Iraq, she was responsible for infiltrating Saddam Hussein’s weapons program.

Back at home, though, Plame was simply a wife and mother, raising two young twins with Wilson: a former ambassador to Niger, acknowledged hero after facing off Hussein in the immediate wake of Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Their friends knew her as a venture capitalist; she tended to remain quiet during the politically charged conversations that took place when they invited folks over for dinner.

Director Doug Liman and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth begin Fair Game quietly, almost casually, sketching the workaday dynamic between Plame (Naomi Watts) and Wilson (Sean Penn). They’re polar opposites in temperament: She’s calm and methodical; he’s brash and impulsive. She knows how and when to remain silent; he can’t help calling somebody an idiot if the conversation moves into “stupid territory.”

He knows he shouldn’t; he can’t stop himself. Penn is great casting for this role, and not simply because his real-world self certainly would identify with Wilson. Penn uncorks magnificently, his righteous fury – even when restrained – a wonder to behold. Such moments are as close as this film gets to actual humor: Liman circles the dinner table during a friendly social evening, too much wine prompts silly statements from somebody, Penn’s gaze darkens, his lips compress, clearly biting his tongue.

Then somebody asks his opinion.

We wait, breath held, for the inevitable explosion. (Well, they asked…)

Watts crisply outlines the resourcefulness and in-field adaptability that marked her long and successful career with the CIA. Plame is introduced during a prologue, in mid-mission; she’s every inch the trained operative and analyst that we wish all CIA agents could be.

Briefly, at such moments in this film, we’re in movie espionage thriller territory – let us not forget, Liman directed The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith – with one major difference: This is real life (or at least an approximation of real life, since Plame’s actual CIA activities remain classified to this day).

Meanwhile, as late 2001 segues to early 2002, the country’s mood – fanned in no small part by the mood at the White House – remains watchful and paranoid. The CIA debunks a suggestion, suggested by a lone researcher, that Hussein will use a massive shipment of aluminum tubes to ramp up Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. (Wrong sort of tubes. Wrong size. Wrong thickness.)

At the suggestion of Plame’s boss, Wilson is sent back to Niger, to investigate whether the tiny country could have processed a huge quantity of yellow-cake uranium, again for Iraq’s supposed weapons program. He concludes not: no way Niger could have processed or moved that much material without anybody knowing it, seeing it, attempting to steal some of it.

Given the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we wince at each detail, knowing what is to come.

David Andrews is wonderfully odious as the villain of this piece – Scooter Libby – whose unexpected intrusion at CIA HQ anticipates the way the White House will spin things. And, in fairness, Libby makes a telling point: The CIA’s credibility is suspect, since the agency failed to learn the scope of Iraq’s initial weapons program, back in 1990.

Liman and the Butterworths – adapting books by Plame and Wilson, Fair Game and The Politics of Truth – methodically build their case, detailing every step that led this country into war with Iraq, while simultaneously demonstrating that the CIA could debunk every one of the reasons eventually used by the Bush administration, as just cause for the “shock and awe” invasion that followed.

The White House cites Wilson’s report as proof that Niger did supply uranium to Iraq. At first stunned and then outraged, Wilson can’t quite grasp how to react. We remember those dinner conversations: the way Liman established the pattern of Wilson’s behavior.

The rest is history. Wilson wrote a scathing article for the New York Times, titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” Literally caught with their pants down, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Libby (the latter the only one granted a dramatic presence in this film) orchestrated a campaign to “change the story.” They “outed” Plame, destroying her career and putting untold lives in danger: all those who were part of her ongoing missions, some of them in Iraq.

A heinous, vindictive, little-schoolboy act.

And it worked.

The degree to which it worked resonates to this day, informing – in great part – the way this film will be perceived. It will preach to the liberal choir, anger and inflame the conservatives who still believe our war with Iraq was justified.

I fear this movie has come too soon: Its impressively detailed script and solid dramatic performances – Watts and Penn as the highlights, with excellent support from Andrews, Noah Emmerich, Michael Kelly and Sam Shepard (the latter briefly, but tellingly, as Plame’s father) – will be overshadowed by politics, and by political fury.

And yet, how can the timing be wrong? Almost a decade later, we’re still in Iraq, still stuck in the mire of a war that George W. Bush declared “over” in May of 2003, during that idiotic photo op on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

Liman and the Butterworths use these world-shattering events as a backdrop to the intimacy of much smaller relationships: the stress Plame’s “outing” placed on her family and marriage, the blowback “in the field” in Iraq and elsewhere.

Watts and Penn persuasively depict the disintegration of their relationship; it’s heartbreaking. The pain in Penn’s eyes recalls the similar anguish of the father he played in Mystic River, in the aftermath of his daughter’s slaying. Watts’ Plame, similarly, has held it all together for so long, and done so with such practiced control … and yet she has reached the end of her tether.

Even behind closed doors, eavesdropping on conversations only Plame and Wilson could have known, this part of Liman’s film feels wholly authentic.

Liberties are taken elsewhere, to convey the collateral damage after Plame’s exposure; we’ve followed the reluctant efforts of a young doctor, sent into Iraq to meet her brother and learn more about Hussein’s supposed weapons program. Although lacking the character complexity of the more intimate relationship between Watts and Penn, this parallel storyline nonetheless makes its point: It’s easy for us to imagine that something very much like this happened to six, 12 – how many? – of the “assets” Plame was handling when all hell broke loose.

The tech credits here are excellent, although Liman – who also handles the cinematography – occasionally over-indulges his fondness for herky-jerky camerawork.

The lessons to be extracted here are crucial: that we don’t want our heads of state to act unwisely during times of crisis – particularly not then – and that they must be held accountable for crimes against the country. Doesn’t matter which “side” is in power; the same rules should apply across the board.

Consider how things would have been different, had President Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis the way Bush handled post-9/11 policies with Iraq. Indeed, I’d love to attend a double feature that paired this film with 2000’s Thirteen Days.

Sadly, I rather suspect Fair Game will sink like a stone at the box office, its fate determined by the public indifference to all such films in recent history. And that’s the true shame, as proven by Wilson’s final impassioned speech, delivered to a college audience, at the end of this story: When the general public can’t be bothered to look beyond sound bites and attack ads, when we refuse to challenge, question and become engaged in the political process, the scoundrels are free to do as they please.

As Benjamin Franklin quite famously said – in a statement also referenced in this film – our nation is “a republic … if [we] can keep it.”

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