Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fair Game: Political Thriller with a Point of View

Fair Game, the based-on-real-life political thriller from director Douglas Liman (Go, Bourne Ultimatum), wants to make you really, really mad at the Bush administration. It does so passionately and with detailed emotional drama, and it succeeds in its goal quite well. This is the first movie in a long time that immediately made me want to sign up to volunteer for a cause.

In case you haven't heard about the movie, this is the dramatization of the Valery Plame (Naomi Watts) / Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) story. Plame was the CIA agent who was outed in the press by Scooter Libby, in revenge for her husband's New York times editorial undermining the Bush case for war against Iraq. The movie retells the real-life events from Plame's point of view. As an undercover CIA operative, not only was her career was destroyed out of an act of political malice; dozens of her "assets" (CIA-speak for ordinary people trapped in unpleasant situations that the CIA has conned or connived into becoming informants) are left in mortal jeopardy - and many killed - when Plame's cover is blown. The public exposure of a CIA agent isn't only a rather un-American and stupid thing to do; it's also rather illegal. Libby was sentence to two years; Bush commuted his sentence, and the investigation ended there, even though reporters (and the movie) suggest there were clearly other White House players involved.

The movie opens with an involving tour-de-farce of Plame's daily operations, which in the wake of 9/11 take her from south-east Asia to Iraq, where she is deeply involved in extracting information from Iraqi scientists on their weapons programs. When the CIA wishes to track down rumors of yellowcake (fissionable nuclear material) being sold to Iraq from Niger, she suggests her husband, a former ambassador to Niger, as a good candidate for the mission. Like a dutiful husband, Wilson makes the trip to visit his old contacts, and determines the rumors of a sale are false - the alleged sale would have involved over fifty semi-tractor-trailers; if that much material was being transported through the villages, someone in Niger would have noticed.

But as we know now, the Bush administration wanted to paint a picture that Iraq had WMD's after all. They ignored Wilson's report and found a single CIA analyst willing to suggest that aluminum tubes purchased by Sadam might be used as part of a nuclear program, despite all the evidence that Plame, Wilson, and the CIA had assembled saying that Sadam had no active WMD program going. When Bush announced the purchase of yellowcake in his State of the Union speech, this was too much for Wilson, who knew the truth, and felt he had to speak out.

All of this is public knowledge, but we haven't gotten inside the point of view of Wilson and Plame so deeply before. The film goes to pains to point out the evidence supporting Plame's and Wilson's story: the trip to Niger is no boondoggle (the water in the hotel hardly runs); Plame is an excellent agent (she handles her "assets" with the required professional mix of empathy, suspicion, and efficiency); and they have an ordinary, suburban marriage that gets put to the test when the power of the White House is brought to bear to smear their names. The movie is certainly one-sided in its portrait (there is no sympathy here for the Bush march to war), but necessarily so, as it's main mission is to arouse anger not simply at the treatment of Wilson and Plame, but at the public abuse. The White House has clearly lied to the public in order to lead us to a disastrous war. Wilson...and later Plame...are the only people trying to blow the whistle. We might have sympathy for what was done to them. But we should be even angrier at how the country was misled.

As a political screed, then, the movie is quite a success, and a definite recommendation (these amazing crimes and intentional deceptions of the Bush administration really need to be better known by the public). It's no surprise to find Penn, one of the better spoken Hollywood liberals, leading the charge, and he delivers his lines with the passion of a real politico. As a dramatization of a couple in crisis, however, it often skips feverishly past moments that could use better contextualization: Plame's quiet adoration of her father (Sam Shepard); Wilson's insensitivity to his wife's situation; Plame's eventual decision to break with her code of CIA silence (Watt's line, "they can't take my marriage," is perhaps the most powerful emotional core here). We get all the right moments, but they're delivered with the telegraphed urgency of a political blogger on a soapbox. One wishes, a bit, for a Spielberg here, who could delve into the political and moral morass of something like the Arab / Israeli conflict and emerge with a complete human portrait as well as a point of view. It would also help to contextualize the war itself, and the dire consequences for both our country and Iraq.

But clearly, the film does its job well. It made me mad as hell. If the Democrats don't have the guts to investigate the Bush administration, at least directors like Liman and actors like Watts and Penn have the courage to make this movie. That's the most re-assuring thing I've come across in the past two years.

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