Monday, March 14, 2011

Film Review with Robert Mann - Fair Game

Fair Game **

On July 14, 2003, a newspaper column entitled Mission to Niger, written by syndicated columnist, journalist, television personality, author, and conservative political commentator Robert Novak, disclosed the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson as a covert Central Intelligence Agency operative. Mrs. Wilson’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, has stated in various interviews and subsequent writings that it is his opinion that the scandal, which has come to be known as the Plame affair – and that is also known as the CIA leak scandal, the CIA leak case, the CIA leak grand jury investigation, and Plamegate – emerged as retribution for his opinion-editorial entitled What I Didn’t Find in Africa, which was published in the New York Times on July 6, 2003 and argued that, ahead of the invasion of Iraq by US forces, President George W. Bush misrepresented intelligence and misleadingly suggested that the Iraqi regime sought uranium with which to build nuclear weapons. These events, which are resoundingly true and led to Valerie Plame Wilson writing her own memoir entitled Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House (which, coupled with her husband’s 2004 memoir The Politics of Truth, forms the inspiration for this film) – a memoir which obviously encountered resistance from the CIA in the course of her chronicling her work with the organisation – as a means of both telling her own story in her own words and as a means of earning an income to replace her deferred retirement annuity when, after her resignation from the CIA in December 2005 and an attempt to retire early at the age of 42, she was informed that she could not collect her pension till the age of 56, form the basis for Fair Game, a Hollywood film based on the whole affair.

However, it should be noted that the film, which was one of the official selections competing for the Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and that won the ‘Freedom of Expression Award’ from the National Board of Review, while being based on true events, is not exactly a full on representation of the truth as is so often the case in Hollywood, the trailer clearly baring the words “Inspired by true events” (something which always points to some stretching of the truth). For instance, the editorial page of the ‘Washington Post’ (the paper which featured Robert Novak’s editorial disclosing Plame’s identity) accused the film of “Hollywood myth-making,” stating that it is “full of distortions – not to mention outright inventions”. While Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame sent a letter to the Washington Post, responding to this editorial page by pointing out that Walter Pincus and Richard Leiby, two Washington Post reporters who covered the Plame affair, had already published a review of the film in which they wrote “the movie holds up as a thoroughly researched and essentially accurate account – albeit with caveats” , this is clearly not a film where accuracy to the facts has not been a priority; somewhat ironic considering that distortion of the truth is very much a central theme in the story. 

Nonetheless, the film is in very capable hands with director Doug Liman having previously directed well received films such as married assassin action thriller Mr. & Mrs. Smith and spy thriller The Bourne Identity – even though his teleportation themed actioner Jumper was less well received and the Bourne franchise has since been usurped from him by director Paul Greengrass, two things that don’t really reflect on his capability to do a good job with Fair Game. And with high calibre actors Naomi Watts and Sean Penn in the leading roles the acting credentials are also of a high standard. But, with truth not the priority of the filmmakers does Fair Game prove to be truly fair in balancing an accurate representation of the truth with an engaging thriller?

Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) is a wife, a mother and a spy. Working for the CIA, she carries out covert operations overseas, building up contacts to help the organisation track down terrorists who are planning attacks on American soil. Her home life is chaotic but as normal as she could hope for, her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), knowing what her work entails and being understanding up to a point. Joe and the kids are never far from Valerie’s mind but she takes her work very seriously and it is already starting to place some strain on her marriage. She can’t foresee, however, what will result when her superiors Jack McAllister (Michael Kelly) and Bill Johnson (Noah Emmerich) ask her to get her husband to help them by flying to African country Niger to investigate whether a massive sale of yellow cake uranium has taken place between the country and Iraq, uranium that Iraq could use to build nuclear weapons of mass destruction. 

Joe willingly does this and concludes that the sale could never have taken place but there’s one problem – the men who lead the country don’t want to hear that there are no nuclear weapons and proceed to make claims that the sale did indeed go ahead regardless of the facts that say otherwise in order to justify their invasion of Iraq. Angered by the blatant lie that is being presented to the American people, Joe publishes an editorial stating his conclusions and, as a result, he and Valerie are brought to the extremely irritated attentions of high up man Scooter Libby (David Andrews). Shortly afterwards, a major leak of information leads to Valerie being exposed as a CIA agent and a crucial operation that she has in play in Iraq being destroyed as a result. With her identity exposed to the whole world, the country being led to believe that she and her husband are traitors and their family put at risk, America’s attention is conveniently diverted from the lie that has been told to them. But Joe isn’t going to let he and his wife’s lives be destroyed and vows to fight back by doing everything in his power to reveal the truth to the American public and, while initially reluctant, Valerie soon joins in the fight too.

Really more of a drama than a thriller, Fair Game is a film a film that provides a more realistic portrayal of the CIA than is typically seen in Hollywood movies, one that highlights that the life of a CIA agent it not remotely glamorous and not especially exciting either. Aside for one line of dialogue, where Joe says “I’m not feeling very 007-ish”, there isn’t even as much as a reference to the Hollywood view of what it is like to be a spy and, while it is refreshing to see a non fantastical representation of the life of a spy, the sad fact is that the real life of a CIA agent isn’t especially cinematic. This is a rather slow paced film with lots of scenes based around meetings and conversations taking the place of action sequences. The absence of action sequences of any kind – this is in no way intended as an action thriller – is not a problem but the absence of truly engaging conversation most definitely is. A film doesn’t need loud flashy action sequences to engage the mind but it does need truly gripping debates between its characters and, sadly, this is something that this film largely fails to deliver. The dialogue is generally decent but the conversations are nowhere near as engaging as they really need to be and are distinctly unremarkable. 

They aren’t helped much by the way they’ve been shot either. The shaky hand held shooting style that is employed here proves to be more of a distraction than anything. It may add a raw and realistic edge to action sequences but seems somewhat pointless in conversations as seen here and the cinematography in general – all by Doug Liman, who is director of photography as well as director – is also not much to speak of. The plot is also flawed, the storyline seeming to reflect the real life timeline of events but meandering rather than flowing, the revelation that Valerie is a CIA agent not coming for an hour, by which point I had lost much interest, and the overall plot frankly being a bit of a mess. The whole thing often feels like a television dramatisation that just happens to star Hollywood actors with average television grad plotting meeting high calibre acting. It is hard to find much fault with the acting at least. As a woman struggling to strike a balance between her tough and demanding job and her also tough and demanding home life, Naomi Watts convinces, having an appropriately manipulative edge when her character is out on missions but seeming genuinely loving and caring when she is at home with her family. Sean Penn is also very good as a man who isn’t willing to let anyone destroy the life of him and his family, delivering a strongly outspoken performance and convincing as a man who is being damaged as much by everything that is going on as his wife is. 

The two leads also have a convincing chemistry, sharing tender moments that seem genuinely sincere but also becoming somewhat distant from one another as the whole situation threatens to tear their marriage apart. Also of note among the cast is David Andrews, who is perfectly scheming, condescending and manipulative as Libby, extremely convincing as a person who wouldn’t think twice about destroying someone else’s entire life to save his own ass. The acting is good here, this much is undeniable, but, alas, it is not enough to overcome the many shortcomings. The inclusion of real news footage from the period throughout the film (as well as a piece during the closing credits featuring the real Valerie Plame Wilson) lends the film the appearance of authenticity and the film does at least maintain this appearance of authenticity even if some of the facts suggest it to be somewhat inauthentic but Liman really struggles to strike a balance between accuracy and truly interesting drama. So, Fair Game is resultantly a film that fails to really engage the mind, even if the issues explored are quite thought provoking. A surprisingly dull affair then, despite the very promising premise.


Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

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