Thursday, December 30, 2010

Film Review #239: Fair Game
Director: Doug Limon
Cast: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, David Andrews

Now I want you to drive to Ithaca, in this weather, to see a movie? Right.

So, the plan this week was to present you with that box of Christmas candy otherwise known as The Tourist, with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. Then Friday afternoon a couple movie buddies – one an intrepid driver with four new tires – said, "Let’s go to Ithaca and see Fair Game.” Directed by Doug Limon (who did his own cinematography too), starring Sean Penn as former diplomat Joe Wilson, Naomi Watts as outed CIA operative Valerie Plame and a wickedly good David Andrews as Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, this film combines the individual memoirs written by Wilson and Plame to recount how the Bush administration justified the invasion of Iraq with doctored intelligence evidence about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program and then retaliated when Joe Wilson went public in a 2003 New York Times op-ed piece about what he didn’t find in the African nation of Niger.

Well before the 9/11 attacks, the CIA was already investigating the regime of Saddam Hussein, in particular whether he was developing nuclear weapons (or “WMD,” in the parlance of newspaper shorthand of the day). In 2001, also before 9/11, Valerie Plame was made head of operations for the CIA’s Joint Task Force on Iraq. Plame’s husband had been ambassador to Niger during the Clinton administration and therefore knew the country well, so he was in a position to be asked to informally re-check a persistent story that Iraq was buying “yellowcake” uranium from Niger (a form of uranium necessary for the fabrication of nuclear weapons). He determined this could not have happened and so reported back. In one riveting scene, Wilson watches a TV news broadcast of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell telling the United Nations that the CIA had determined that Niger had indeed sold “yellowcake” to Iraq.

9/11 of course changed everything, and some of the most effective scenes in this film involve the fall-out among intelligence agents and organizations once it became apparent that there had been missed clues that, followed up on, might have prevented those attacks. With regard to Iraq and Saddam’s WMDs, agents of the vice-president’s office returned repeatedly to the CIA to press them about the likelihood of various surmises and conclusions, really to change those conclusions to concoct another case. In one such scene a heretofore competent and committed agent is reduced to a stuttering mess by the relentless Libby’s interrogation.

It was Scooter Libby who leaked information to the press that Wilson’s wife was a CIA operative – leaked multiple times, as it turned out, for good measure, in case any reporter given this tidbit might have qualms about printing it. Columnist Robert Novak broke the story, which of course cost Plame her career, but – as both her memoir and the film make plain – also cost the lives of many, perhaps hundreds, of civilian “assets” she had developed who were in vulnerable positions and mid-stream operations. The film dramatizes this in the form of the abrupt abandonment of Iraqi scientists whom she had recruited to defect and promised to get safely out of that country along with their families, who were rounded up subsequently and disappeared. And the pressure of Plame’s outing almost cost her and Wilson their marriage, as they each struggled with how to respond publicly, each feeling abandoned and betrayed by the other. In a cameo as Plame’s father, Sam Shepherd burnishes a single scene in which he listens to her anguish and, with all the compact but deeply felt reticence of a career military officer – read, unassailable patriot – answers softly, “What they did [to Wilson and her] was just wrong.”

This is a very, very good movie. Naomi Watts gives her best performance in ages and Sean Penn is now mature enough to deliver the performance he clearly aimed for with All the King’s Men. To some extent, that includes his emerging capacity for restraint at the right moments.

The same applies to Doug Limon, who as a filmmaker has visited espionage cinema before in two very different films – The Bourne Identity (2002), and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, his 2005 re-make of Hitchcock’s 1941 comedy about married spies and notable as the occasion igniting Brad Pitt’s off-stage romance Angelina Jolie. There has been some criticism of Fair Game as imperfectly blending Plame’s memoir with its “personal” bent and Wilson’s, which is more political in focus. I find that not such an issue; instead, I’m pleased that Limon seems to know, first, that this is not another movie fantasy and, second, that he’s stuck to a fairly straightforward time-line that makes some sense of complex events, when his temptation might have been to tart things up. And did I mention that the sound track is superb?

Fair Game, which has just picked up several nominations for year-end awards from the national Women Film Critics Circle, ought to be playing in major multiplexes across the land – and certainly here in Syracuse. If you’ve been wondering, as I have, how come we just don’t seem to be getting some movies very quickly this winter, this one takes the cake. Last Saturday morning I asked on my Face Book page, “Why isn’t this movie playing in Syracuse?” Nat Tobin answered that he had tried to book Fair Game for Manlius Art Cinema but there were simply very few available prints and he couldn’t get one.

Even so, it’s still playing at Ithaca’s Cinemapolis the rest of this week and next – that is, held over twice and available until Christmas Eve, with two evening screenings during the week and two matinees added on the weekends.

The Tourist is a tasty little bon-bon of a movie. But Fair Game sticks to your ribs.

A shorter version of this review appears in the December 16, 2010 print edition of "The Eagle" weekly. “Fair Game” continues until 12/24 (held over two weeks) at Cinemapolis, 120 East Green St., Ithaca, behind the Commons,, with two evening screenings weekdays (7:25 and 9:25) and two matinees added on the weekend (2:25 and 4:25).