Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Bush Identity

OK, here's my review of Doug Limon's Fair Game.

Before I speak, here's credit where it's due. Limon, among other things, directed The Bourne Identity and produced its two sequels. Those films took the spy movie genre apart and put it back together — gave us cinema spies who were dirtier, grittier and faster, but also more realistic — creatures of flesh and blood with history, psychology, vulnerability and nerve endings. Bourne gave birth to the Daniel Craig Bond. After Bourne, no spy movie will ever be the same. Limon changed an entire category of filmmaking.

His latest effort is Fair Game — a political thriller based on the real life Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson incident.

A different genre. With a different set of rules.

Say you’re a filmmaker. You want to make a political thriller based on real life events. You want it to work? All The President’s Men remains the gold standard.

The recipe? Pretend your film is a fictionalized documentary and you’re totally objective. (Hey, you’re not, or you wouldn’t be making a political film in the first place.) But fake it. Pretend you’ve got nothing to sell and the audience will buy what you’re selling. Keep your political cards close to your chest.

But Limon tips his hand. To start with, casting leftwing poster boy Sean Penn as Ambassador Joe Wilson is a dead giveaway. The opening montage — to the sneering tune of the Gorillaz' Sunshine in a Bag — telegraphs: GEORGE W. BUSH IS A TOOL OF NEO-CON LIARS AND CROOKS. THE IRAQ WAR IS A SCAM. In case you miss the implication, Wilson cusses out a guest at a dinner party who admits to being nervous at the sight of two desperate-looking, praying Arabs in religious grab on a plane flight. This is 18 months or so after 9-11 — but that’s no excuse for racial profiling!

This scene establishes Wilson as a hothead loudmouth. But it also tells us where the movie stands. On the side of the PC angels, natch.

After these initial false moves, Limon's movie picks up. The first act is a detective story — and it's the best part of the movie. Wilson checks out intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein is buying Uranium from Niger; he discovers the reports are not true. Wilson makes his report to the CIA; then the White House strongarms the CIA into reaching a different conclusion. Saddam did buy Uranium from Africa! We know! Bush and friends make public statements to that effect—and we invade Iraq. Enraged, Wilson blows the whistle in the NYT, writing an editorial saying the war’s pretext was a lie. In retaliation, the White House blows the cover of Wilson's wife — CIA agent, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) — implying she's a low-level secretary who sent her loser husband on a fact-finding mission for nepotistic motives. Bush and his cronies destroy Wilson's credibility, Plame's career, and the lives of several of her intelligence assets. The detective story becomes a story of betrayal. And then it becomes a relationship story.

Thanks to the White House disinformation campaign, press and public turn against Plame and Wilson. The stress almost cracks their marriage. It's an interesting, touching exploration of character under fire, but Limon drags it out. It’s the obligatory all-is-lost segment. We know where the film is going — but it takes too long to get there. Eventually, the couple will take a stand and fight. It takes about 45 minutes before they do.

At the end of the flick, Scooter Libby (a low level player in the character assassination campaign) is convicted of perjury, then commuted by George W. Bush. The investigation dead-ends there; nobody else is tried or convicted. Wilson makes an obligatory patriotic speech quoting Ben Franklin. "We’ve got a republic — if we can keep it." The effect is less than rousing.

Here again, All the President's Men show you how it's done.

Fair Game intercuts Wilson and Plame's reaction to the hatchet job against them with shots of the White House plotters responsible. (Who might as well be Darth Vader and the Emperor on the Death Star.) All the President's Men kept Nixon and his crew out of sight — an unknown threat. Like "Jaws," Nixon is scarier when you don't see him. Fair Game shows you the threat. Fat, balding white guys behind desks. Oooh, scary. More importantly ...

When All the President's Men came out in 1975, everybody already knew that Nixon would fall like Humpty Dumpty, taking his cronies with him. Reporters Woodward and Bernstein would emerge as heroes and talk show and lecture circuit darlings and make fat book sales. America knew that, too. But the movie played the events of Watergate as if we didn't know — and anything could happen. It was a suspense flick where the reporters could get shot in a parking garage at any time. The hell of it is, it worked.

In the hindsight of 2010, America also knows that Bush & Co. were wrong. We know that now. But it wasn't so clear in 2002.

Limon's flick would’ve worked better if he had confined itself to the mindset of the post-9-11 era. Anything could happen; nobody knew the score. Maybe Saddam was building a bomb. Nah. We know the score now; Limon’s characters know the score in 2002. There’s no suspense — for them.

Or the audience either.