Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On DVD: "Fair Game"

Doug Liman’s Fair Game has the crisp intelligence of the great ‘70s conspiracy thrillers like 3 Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, with one key difference: it’s all true. Taken from the books by its subjects, Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson, it recreates how the latter’s New York Times op-ed critical of the Bush administration’s justification for war in Iraq led to the administration leaking the identity of his wife, a covert CIA operative.

Liman directed the first (and possibly best) of the Bourne films; the son of the chief counsel for the Iran-Contra hearings, he smuggled a healthy dose of political content into that picture. Here, as his fellow Bourne director Paul Greengrass did in Green Zone, he’s working with a more straightforward political story, though the end result is certainly more successful. From the tightly-edited title sequence (which efficiently recaptures the mood of America in the immediate wake of 9/11) forward, Liman and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth construct the narrative in sharp, punchy scenes that lean heavily on their leading actors, who are more than up to the task.

Glammed-up Hollywood casting can often come into play when these true stories are produced (that was certainly the case with the loosely Plame-inspired Nothing But the Truth, which found its Judith Miller character played by Kate Beckinsale), but for once, the casting choice isn’t a stretch; Naomi Watts certainly looks the part, and puts across Plame’s tough exterior and businesslike style like it’s second nature. Watts, who has always exceled at playing headstrong characters (witness her other great performance last year, in Mother and Child), knows exactly when to reveal Plame’s vulnerability—and how far to go without pushing too hard.

Sean Penn’s work as Joe Wilson is just as accomplished; his inability to bullshit is established early on, when a friend at a bar proposes a rather xenophobic hypothetical and asks what he’d do. Joe opens his mouth to answer—and then Liman cuts to the Wilsons in the car driving home, with Joe insisting, “He started it!” In that cut (not dialogue, not action, but an edit) we know exactly what we need to know about this guy. Penn is not afraid to play the character’s absolute impossibility—in some respects, the film is as much about his psychology as it is about his politics.

In a story like this one, a faceless administration won’t do as the sole villain, so the film provides Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff for Vice President Cheney. As played by David Andrews, Libby is as squirrely as a snake-oil salesman; smugly intoxicated with his own power, self-righteous and unwilling to hear anything besides what he wants to hear, the characterization is perhaps a little broad. But it’s effective. (Adam LeFevre also pops up as Karl Rove, though Liman makes the odd decision to also use news footage and photos of the real Rove during the film, which is a touch confusing.) Sam Shepard is third-billed but gets precious little screen time, though he nails his one big scene.

The screenplay isn’t just concerned with the Plames; it wisely crosscuts to the Baghdad operation that Plame had underway at the time, and which fell apart, showcasing the real human consequence of the betrayal. The tension and arguments between Joe and Valerie may be inevitable and expected—their story was a bit of a no-brainer, since it played out in such conventionally cinematic story terms—but the writing is sharp and the performances are stellar. The actors are constantly entrenched in their specific reality—witness the way they keep switching in and out of their cheerful parent personas during the fight at the playground—while Liman frequently takes the pat scenes and gives them a little spin (I liked the would-be fight that ends with “I’m going to Cleveland”). And their reconciliation, when it comes, could not be more perfectly written or played.

The closing sequence of Fair Game pulses with raw emotion and righteous indignation, the words and music coalescing into an inspiring call to arms. This is not a film that hides its politics (lookin’ good there, Peter King), so friends of Dubya probably need not apply. Then again, I’m not quite sure how anyone could fall on his side of the Plame affair. It was a shameful moment of partisan presidential politics, and while Fair Game may not have quite the same power as All the President’s Men, it certainly calls the older film to mind. That, by the way, is a compliment.

"Fair Game" debuts today on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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