Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fair Game Movie Review

I'm sort of torn about how to approach Doug Liman's Fair Game, a political thriller based on the real-life events surrounding the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame in the time period in and around the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. It's undeniably a well-constructed slow burning thriller and a great deal of the information in the film appears to be mostly accurate, based on several independent journalistic reports. But then it tries to represent itself as a bold and daring exercise in filmmaking that exposes the truth, while at the same time being a completely conventional film.

While I certainly preferred Liman as a director of smaller films like Swingers and Go, his action films, including the first in the Bourne series, although with the exception of Jumper (from what I've read and the bits I've seen it's an unmitigated disaster), demonstrate a slick vision and controlled hand at presenting fast-paced action sequences with sharp visual and staccato, but cohesive editing. Fair Game mercifully doesn't ever find the need to toss in gratuitous chase sequences or to distort what is essentially a mild-mannered, though complex, story into a trove of action movie cliches and trumped up tension.

Based on Valerie Plame's own memoir, as well as her husband Joe Wilson's book, the script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth remains as well-grounded in fact and reality as possible without becoming mired in tedium. As director of photography, Liman must have worked closely with his editor Christopher Tellefsen to maintain the brisk pace. There's a lot of information to pack into the film's 105 minute running time.

Plame is played dependably by Naomi Watts. Together with Sean Penn as Wilson, they bring both their professional and personal histories to their roles. Plame's and Wilson's characters are established early and firmly. Plame is a consummate  professional, utterly serious about her work as an undercover operative and invested not only in the need for good intelligence gathering for her government, but also in the individuals she deals with on the other side of the globe.

Wilson is no less serious in his professionalism, but he is also unable to hold his tongue when polite company say things about Arabs he finds to be rather impolite. For the record, the attitude he finds so abhorrent is not such a controversial opinion, in my estimation. That Wilson can't keep his mouth shut creates early tension with his wife, a rather lazy shorthand foreshadowing of the marital discord that will follow from his New York Times column and subsequent barrage of media appearances to defend himself and his family.

As a former ambassador to Niger under President Clinton, Wilson is tasked by the CIA to travel there on a fact-finding mission to determine if the Iraqi regime had purchased enough so-called Yellowcake uranium to start a weapons program. He doesn’t find any evidence of a deal between Iraq and Niger but the Bush administration goes to war citing the Yellowcake purchase as one of the key pieces of evidence. Wilson then writes his Times column that denies the Bush administration’s cassus belli. Soon after, his wife is outed in the Washington Post, her identity as a covert operative leaked presumably by someone in The White House. The implication is that her name was leaked as retribution against her husband. She loses her position in the CIA and a media war erupts between Wilson and The White House, continually putting Plame and their family in the middle.

The details are handled tactfully, although quite unashamedly from the Plame-Wilsons’ point of view. There are some details that don’t exactly square with the facts as they were reported by several independent media outlets at the time, but the broad strokes are accurate. The one quibble I have is the exaggeration of Plame’s covert operations. The screenplay makes out that she was directly involved in programs that had human lives at stake, programs which were subsequently and unceremoniously abandoned after her outing. This stands in contrast to the reported facts. Obviously a change like this adds dramatic importance to her being dropped from all CIA operations so suddenly. It puts a globally interconnected spin on a local family matter. But it also paints the administration as cold and unsparing and willing to do whatever is necessary to advance the ball in the Iraq invasion. There’s no doubt where the screenwriters stand politically.

The film’s message is clearly spelled out in a closing coda depicting Penn’s Wilson giving a lecture at a university and urging the young minds in attendance that a strong democracy like that in the United States only remains so through vigilance and the willingness to speak out when something is wrong. Penn, like the character he’s playing, embodies that principle, and it’s a position that’s hard to disagree with even if you think Plame and her husband were wrong.

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