A newspaper article infuriates the White House, which retaliates with all its political might to discredit the story, crush its author and cover up its own internal corruption. Sound familiar, like maybe All the President’s Men? If that’s among your favorite docudramas, then make room on the shelf for Fair Game, a real-life paranoid trip that unfolds across continents but finds its emotional center in a quiet suburban home.
There are striking similarities between the 1976 Redford-Hoffman classic and the inexplicably overlooked Fair Game. There are also major differences: The ’76 film exudes the idealism of its era, while the new one is steeped in the cynicism of modern media. The older movie is told from the viewpoint of hustling young reporters, while the one released this week on video comes through the eyes of a married couple — respected officials whose careers collide in a cataclysm of government disinformation. Yeah, there’s another huge difference to point out: This time, the good guys don’t win.
This isn’t a spoiler, folks, unless you’ve been ignoring national news since the Iraq war began eight years ago.
Director Doug Liman has had hits with cheeky thrillers and international intrigue (see Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Identity), so he knows how to tell a story with full cinematic oomph – even when he is obliged, as he is here, to stick with facts. (There are interpretations one can quibble with, but the historical record is pretty clear.) What you may not know about Liman is that his father was chief counsel for the U.S. Senate committee that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid-1980s. The harsh realities of government misconduct may well have influenced his decision to detail the events that affected the nation 20 years later.
Because we already know the story (as we did Watergate), Fair Game could have emerged as a dry, bitter rehash. But just as Redford and Hoffman brought the reporters’ stories to suspenseful life, so do Naomi Watts and Sean Penn turn Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson into full-blooded, sympathetic yet imperfect human beings.
Watts is absolutely devastating as Plame, the CIA international operative who became a victim of a horrible character assassination through no fault of her own. And Penn is equally brilliant as Wilson, a career diplomat and global consultant who insisted on telling the truth while underestimating the devious ways that the powerful can punish opponents.
The background is brief: To justify invading Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration spread an “intelligence” report that Saddam Hussein either possessed or was about to possess “weapons of mass destruction.” Specifically, the government asserted that Saddam was busy buying bomb-building nuke materials from the miserable African nation of Niger. A chorus of bigwigs, from Bush to Cheney to Condoleezza Rice, insisted that the information was solid enough to warrant a full-scale regime change. Wilson knew there was no uranium. He had been to Niger, visited the mines, spoken to those in charge.
So he decided to tell the world what he knew. He did it with an op-ed piece in the New York Times, and the Cheney cabal was totally ticked off.
The retaliation fell most heavily on Wilson’s wife. It’s illegal to expose a secret operative, but that’s what Cheney’s chief of staff did through surreptitious leaks to friendly journalists. Lives were ruined – and not only the Americans killed in the misbegotten invasion. Plame’s cover was blown, so she couldn’t return to her work. Even worse, many of her underground contacts were suddenly helpless. It’s a powerful story because we meet some of these victims intimately. They are Americans and Iraqis who trust the CIA to keep promises made to family members in precarious places.
Watts and Penn are magnificent in detailed portrayals of their real-life counterparts. It helps that Plame and Wilson each wrote a book about the experience, and that Liman and two screenwriters turn the material into a compelling narrative. Words and pictures – re-enactments punctuated with occasional TV news clips – combine into a sharp, tense story that leaves an impact regardless of one’s own political attitudes.
Liman knows how to keep a camera moving in ways that help us stick with the detailed chronology. (He is credited as his own director of photography.) And we feel for the main characters, absorbing the mental blows along with them as they learn just how treacherous their government can be. It’s a story anyone can understand and enjoy, eloquently shot, paced and written. Exotic foreign locations add luster, liberating the audience from the confines of the colorless, secretive bureaucracies where honesty is way down on the list of priorities.
The 1080p high-def presentation has an anamorphic 2.39:1 transfer, presented in AVC at a bit rate that varies between 20 and 29 Mpbs. (note: the imdb site says 2:35:1 but the Blu-ray jacket says 2:39 in two places.) This film takes us to a broad range of locations and moods, requiring everything from the quiet close-ups of office infighting to the sprawling, teeming misery of ruinous Third World poverty and the chaos of civilians fleeing a war zone. Color schemes and contrasting production designs are part of Liman’s plan to keep us involved every step of the way. The crystalline qualities of high definition are put to excellent use with this superior transfer.
The main soundtrack is in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 at 48 KHz at a crisp 3.7Mbps, which captures subtleties on both ends of the volume scale. There’s a Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 at 48 KHz at 224Kbps. But the real treat here is the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio commentary track, with Plame and Wilson doing all the talking. It’s astonishing to hear them add details and memories and context to such a personal story. If you ever doubted their complete veracity, you owe yourself a second run-through, watching the action and listening to the actual people involved. When Plame points out idiosyncrasies in the dialog, or when Wilson reveals that he loaned Penn his wedding ring for the role, or when one of them says, “I would never say that,” it’s pure credibility at its peak.
The audio commentary track is the only special feature. Nothing more is needed. Beats the heck out of another “making-of” promo.
It’s a sad comment on today’s movie-going industry that this film wasn’t a box-office success. As time goes by, its armor-piercing honesty should gain influence and an audience. We can only hope.