**½/**** Image B+ Sound C Commentary C
starring Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, David Andrews, Sam Shepard
screenplay by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth, based on the books The Politics of Truth by Joe Wilson and Fair Game by Valerie Plame Wilson
directed by Doug Liman
by Walter Chaw I remember distinctly somewhere in year two of W.'s administration the feeling of extreme "outrage fatigue"--that burnout that occurs when you've spent so much time incredulous that you realize you're the idiot for expecting something different. Subsequently, I recall being the only one in my circle of friends to predict W.'s re-election, as well as the only one not surprised when we didn't find any WMDs. It's not that I'm particularly smart, it's that I'm dick enough to be right half the time. Why fight it? Bad movies tend to win the weekly box office, bad music dominates the charts, bad TV gets renewed; rather than declare it a new phenomenon, take cold comfort in knowing that it was always this way and it's not necessarily worse now. Sophocles wasn't selling out the Coliseum, after all. So if Fair Game, Doug Liman's adaptation of Valerie Plame's memoir of her betrayal by the Bush Administration for the sins of her big-mouthed, self-righteous husband Joe Wilson, doesn't have shock and outrage going for it, it at least has the smarts to portray Joe as a deeply ambiguous figure. He's a jackass, but he's right, and Sean Penn's portrayal of him is uncompromised, unflattering, and completely in keeping with stuff like his Into the Wild and The Assassination of Richard Nixon: liberal shots that don't offend the conversation.
Joe, asked to do some pro bono work in Niger by Bush's people to try to establish proof of a large sale of nuclear material to Saddam's regime, is horrified when Bush's propaganda machine disregards his expert opinion and uses Niger's alleged collusion as a pretense for war. Offended enough to pen a piece for the NEW YORK TIMES, he's somehow surprised (given how smart he is, right?) that the Administration--particularly Cheney's chief attack dog, Scooter Libby (David Andrews)--retaliates by leaking that Wilson is an idiot and, worse, a pantywaist, earning assignments at the pleasure of his CIA operative wife. This, of course, endangers Valerie (Naomi Watts) and all of her contacts in her top-secret assignments--and, the film suggests, is actually responsible for the deaths of people who trusted the Bush regime to protect them against those they're betraying on our behalf. Fair Game scores a few points by pointing out that the Plame-Wilsons lose a few of their soccer-mom klatch once it's revealed that Plame is Salt and Joe's asshole-ism is backed up by real-world knowledge. It might be the most interesting thing about the film, this confirmation that all is well for only as long as everyone agrees not to know anything. It's almost as though Plame has broken an ignorance pact with her neighbours--the one unforgivable transgression in the United States today.
Liman's gift for framing movement only surfaces briefly in Fair Game as an Iraqi dissident and his young son try to avoid the general chaos and lawlessness of their city under siege. It's a nice moment, too, juxtaposing the now-familiar night-vision shots of our shock-and-awe campaign against the impact of that kind of aggression on a civilian population largely interested in tucking their kids into bed and getting to work on time the next morning. Mostly, Fair Game is talky and straightforward, with fine performances from Penn and Watts that are easy to overlook because the picture's thrust is too clearly evangelical. It's not especially controversial, given Libby's criminal conviction and Bush's refusal to evacuate it, so the only real interest in it is to suggest none too subtly (there's a couple of scenes with Wilson literally lecturing a roomful of sleepy college students) that we're pawns to media manipulation and our essential lack of curiosity is not just part of the problem, but maybe the whole problem. Never mind that this message is delivered with less didacticism by the 60-year-old Ace in the Hole and descendants like A Face in the Crowd, Network, and so on: for what it is (an old-fashioned paranoia piece about trusting no one that congratulates its pre-picked audience for its hip cynicism), Fair Game's pretty good, and better than it needed to be.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Summit guides Fair Game to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p presentation that's typical of mainstream feature films shot with the Red One HiDef camera. While the transfer itself may very well be unimpeachable, saturation, black level, and detail all suffer in some misguided attempt to approximate celluloid. The movie ultimately looks as cheap, nay, sterile as the recent I Spit on Your Grave remake. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is similarly problematic, to say the least: most if not all of the foley is illogically directed to the rear channels--at an obnoxious volume to boot. As much care and effort went into the mix as if this were The Bourne Identity (everything from the domestic clatter of dishes in the sink to the murmur of a CIA cubicle maze is attentively rendered), yet on this BD, the results are often comical due to the cognitive dissonances created by loud, misplaced cues. A commentary with the real-life Wilson and Plame is largely uninformative and irritating. Should you want to know that they like Penn and Watts portraying them, that they think both captured their idiosyncrasies, and that Plame and Watts still exchange birthday cards, well, turn it up. Occasionally, one or the other will point out where the movie deviates from the truth or augments it ("I don't think the water in Niger was quite that bad!"), but as the film is based in large part on Plame's own memoir, there's not much here that's controversial for the couple. It's useless, really, albeit a good idea. Startup trailers for Source Code and The Beaver round out the platter. Originally published: April 11, 2011.