Movie Reviews - 2010 postsThursday December 30, 2010
Review: “Rabbit Hole” (2010)
How do you deal with an unbearable tragedy, the death of a son, a four-year-old son, who chased his dog into the street and got hit by a car? If you’re his parents, how do you go on?
In “Rabbit Hole,” Becca and Howie (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) come up with opposite answers. She excludes, he includes. She removes, he embraces. In Biblical terms, she commits sins of omission, he commits sins of commission. But “sin” is too strong a word for what they’re doing. They’re just trying to find comfort. They’re both just trying to keep living.
As the movie opens she’s putting fresh soil into her garden. It’s the soil to which we all return, and to which her four-year-old son, Davey, returned, too early, eight months previous, but here, for a moment, it feels like a positive. It’s soil to grow, not bury. Then her neighbor shows up and invites Becca and Howie to dinner that evening. Becca politely declines. Plans, she says. But they have no plans. She just can’t be with people. She’s still in the act of burying.
She’s slowly divesting herself of everything that reminds her of the pain of her son. She starts with the dog that the boy chased into the street (now cooped up at her mother’s apartment), then the drawings on the refrigerator (put into boxes in the basement), then the clothes in the bedroom (given to Goodwill). Eventually she’ll suggest selling the house itself.
Her husband’s the opposite. He watches the same video of his son, over and over again, on his iPhone. He takes comfort in what’s still here. Until one day the video isn’t. After she uses his phone. Oops.
At group therapy, she can’t abide the way other couples assume an order to the universe. How the death of their child was part of God’s plan. How God needed another angel in Heaven. “Then why didn’t He just make one!” Becca finally erupts. “He’s God!” Everyone stares, aghast. So much for group.
She keeps doing this. She holds in, then erupts. A child in a grocery cart pesters his mother for fruit rollups and Becca confronts the mother, tells her to give in, says it won’t hurt him. The mother reacts as mothers do. She says mind your own business. She says, “Do you have any children? I didn’t think so.” Now it’s Becca’s turn to be aghast and she slaps the woman in the face. Basically she commits a criminal act. When she runs off, horrified by what she’s done, by what she’s become, her sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), tries to explain to the mother about how Becca lost a child, etc., but the mother isn’t having it. “I don’t care!” she says.
Neither do we, by this point. That’s the problem. The film juxtaposes two ways of dealing with grief but one of them—Becca’s—is solipsistic and unsympathetic. Howie tries to take comfort in intimacy, in his wife, but she refuses to let herself feel good and makes accusations. “You want to rope me into having sex?” she says, horrified. Later when he brings up having another child, this becomes the accusation. “Were you trying to get me pregnant?” she says, horrified. Howie, on the other hand, never loses our sympathy. For a time, left out in the cold with Becca, he contemplates an affair with another, warmer woman (Sandra Oh), but he doesn’t go through with it. “I love my wife,” he finally says. He’s just waiting for her to return.
Instead of getting close to her husband, though, Becca begins an odd relationship with the high school boy, Jason (Miles Teller), who drove the car that killed her son. She follows his school bus. She follows him to the library. They begin to talk on park benches. Is this a sex thing, one wonders, Kidman’s “Birth” revisited, or a maternal thing? Teller’s got a great face, sad and dumpy, with a puffiness around his eyes as if he’d just woken up or never been to sleep. He’s obviously devastated by what’s happened. He’s also been working on a comic book, “Rabbit Hole,” about parallel universes, about all of the other lives we might be living instead of this one. She reads the book he read for research. She reads his comic book. And in the end it’s this notion—that somewhere, in the many somewheres out there, her son is still living—that finally gives her comfort. She’s saved, not by God and religion, but by scientific theory.
“Rabbit Hole” was directed by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) from a screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted his own Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, and there are moments that feel a bit theatrical. The best speech in the movie, in fact, delivered by Becca’s mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest), feels theatrical to me. I get a glimmer of the artificiality of the stage from it. But I wouldn’t change a word.
Throughout the movie, the main source of tension between Nat and Becca is that Nat, in an attempt to console her daughter, keeps bringing up the fact that she, too, lost a son. Becca’s not having it. Her brother died at 30, not 4, and his death was self-inflicted (a drug overdose), he didn’t get hit by a car. But there’s still pain there. Late in the movie, heading into the basement with her mother, Becca comes across Davey’s things, his refrigerator drawings that she’d hidden earlier in the film, and it’s like a punch in the gut. “Does it go away?” she suddenly asks. “What?” Nat asks. “The feeling,” Becca says. “No,” Nat says. There’s a pause. “It changes, though.” When asked how she says this:
The weight of it, I guess. At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out from under. And carry around—like a brick in your pocket. And you forget it every once in a while, but then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is: “Oh right. That.” Which can be awful. But not all the time. Sometimes it’s kinda... Not that you like it exactly. But it’s what you have instead of your son.
For all the issues I have with the movie, I know I’ll carry these words around with me—and not like a brick—the rest of my life.
Review: “Black Swan” (2010)
WARNING: WHITE SPOILERS, BLACK SPOILERS
At the least, particularly for those of us unfamiliar with ballet, we have a new metaphor with which to talk about ourselves. After the movie, the group of us, six in all, grabbed a bite and talked about whether we thought we were more white swan or black swan. Vinny claimed black swan for himself but no one agreed. (The man can demonstrate how to fold a fitted sheet, for God’s sake.) Theresa is obviously black swan, while Laura, who danced ballet until she was in her late teens, is decidedly mixed. Patricia, my Patricia, loves hanging with the black swans—like Ward—to bring out the black swan in herself. Because she’s mostly white swan.
Me? I am so white swan it hurts. I began this blog, in fact, with the same hope that ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) has for his new star, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), as she prepares for “Swan Lake”: to give up some part of the careful, controlled half (the white swan part) and let go into wildness and creativity (the black swan part). She had better luck than me but at a steeper price. The white swan is a bitch of a muse.
Has any recent movie gotten us into the head of its main character as well as this one? I kept having to take deep breaths after it was over. I’d been holding my breath for the last half hour along with Nina.
It helps to think of the white-swan part of Nina’s personality as less about innocence than control. Sure, Nina is sexually innocent, but one suspects it’s a direct result of her control and discipline. I mean, she doesn’t think about touching herself until Leroy suggests it? Until it might help get the part she covets? I’ll masturbate, but only to be good in the role. One way to make students do their homework.
No, Nina is hardly innocent. She’s covetous. Early in the film, after Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) trashes her own dressing room when she learns she’s been summarily dismissed as prima ballerina of their New York ballet company, Nina sneaks in and sits at the vanity mirror and looks at herself and tries out Beth’s lipstick; then she pockets Beth’s lipstick. It seems a minor thing. Until later in the film when Beth is in the hospital and Nina brings out all the things, including diamond earrings, that Nina has stolen from her over the years. She keeps dipping into her pockets and coming out with more stuff. She’s been coveting the role of prima ballerina for years, and now it’s hers, but she can only see little versions of herself ready to take what’s hers. She assumes the world is like her—we all do—and that’s why she’s paranoid. She knows how awful the desire to take.
The rival she’s most fearful of is Lily (Mila Kunis), late of a San Francisco company, whom she first sees riding the subway and getting off a stop too early and thus arriving late for rehearsal. Lily’s all black swan. Does she need to warm up? “I’m good,” she says. She has a beautiful tattoo of black wings on her back. Nina’s back is full of scars and a rash from where she scratches herself at night. Lily talks boldly, walks with a swagger, while Nina tiptoes and speaks in a squeak of a voice. She’s all apologies. “I’m sorry,” she tells Leroy. “No! Stop saying that!” he responds.
Leroy plays the girls off each other like a movie director. He exacerbates the tensions. He leaves everyone dangling. “Would you fuck that girl?” Leroy asks others about Nina, within earshot of Nina, implying no. He kisses her in private, forcing her mouth open until she responds, then breaks it off. “That was me seducing you when I need it to be the other way around,” he says.
But Leroy is messing with forces that have been built up over a lifetime. Nina still lives with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), in a cramped New York apartment, and her bedroom is all fluffy whites and pinks, with stuffed animals and ballerina music boxes playing tinkly music. She’s isolated, at home and at the company, and lives too much in her head. “The only person standing in your way is you,” Leroy tells her. Leroy wants Nina to unleash something, but what she unleashes is darker and more self-destructive than he imagines. She sees doppelgangers everywhere. IMDb.com lists both Portman and Kunis as 5’ 3”, Ryder a half-inch taller, and each is dark-haired and pretty. So who’s that coming towards her? Is that Beth, whom she replaced, or Lily, who wants to replace her as surely as she wanted to replace Beth? Or is it some darker version of herself—the black swan demanding freedom from the tight grip of the white swan? Or is it her mother? There’s creepy women stuff throughout the film. “You girls are nuts,” I told Patricia afterwards.
Three things propel the story along: 1) We want to know if Nina dances the part; 2) we want to know if she dances it well (if her black swan is released); 3) and we want to know, finally know, what’s real. We assume, for example, when Lily returns to Nina’s place after a night of carousing, and the mother doesn’t comment upon her presence, that, yes, Lily’s not really there, that she’s just in Nina’s head. So much of the movie is a guessing game. OK, this probably isn’t really happening. She really isn’t pulling the skin off her finger, her toes really aren’t stuck together, the old man in the subway really isn’t rubbing his crotch. Is Lily really in her dressing room? Did she really kill her? Is there someone else bleeding to death in the shower stall? Getting into the heads of characters is the novel’s business but no one does it better with film than director Darren Aronofsky.
The ballet numbers are beautifully filmed, the black swan dance a highlight. But did I need that ending? It parallels the ballet, certainly, as well as Aronofsky’s previous film, “The Wrestler,” but without the poignancy. Randy the Ram reaches a dead end, he feels useless, that’s why he does what he does. But Nina is at the top of her game so her on-stage suicide merely feels self-destructive. And does it muddy the metaphor or sharpen it? It’s the white swan who demands perfection ... and so she stabs herself to release her black swan ... in order to be perfect? Am I missing something? I need to think on it some more.
At the least, Nina is the latest character to personify St. Therese’s maxim. Her prayers are answered and the tears flow.
Review: “The Fighter” (2010)
WARNING: ROCKY SPOILERS
According to IMDb.com, there have been 12 movies from various countries called “The Fighter.” David O. Russell’s, starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, is the lucky thirteenth.
The story may seem familiar. It’s about an underdog boxer, a gentle man from a working class neighborhood, who wastes his talent for most of his youth, and then, on the other side of 30, takes one last shot at proving he weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood, and finally, finally triumphs, with his trainer in his corner and his best girl by his side.
We can be forgiven for asking: OK, so how does it differ?
For one, “The Fighter” has the advantage of being mostly true.
It has the added advantage of Christian Bale’s over-the-top, look-at-me-I’m-not-Batman performance as Dicky Eklund, a one-time middleweight contender, trainer to his half-brother, Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), and crack addict.
In ’78 Eklund went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard but lost by unanimous decision. He also knocked down the champ in the 8th round. Eklund’s been living off that moment ever since. He’s “the Pride of Lowell,” never at a loss for words, and, as the movie opens, an HBO camera crew is following around the brothers. We assume it’s pre-fight hype, since Mickey’s about to step in the ring again despite three straight losses, but the crew is actually following around Dicky. He crows about how they’re filming his comeback, but one look at his emaciated body and you wonder, “What comeback?” Yet there’s the camera crew again. A third of the way through the movie, we get our answer. A local at a bar asks a member of the crew what the movie’s about, and the guy replies, “I told you. It’s about crack addiction.” That line lands like a body blow. Dicky’s self-delusions, and his family’s delusions about him, are laid open in the matter-of-factness of the response. What else could it be about?
The HBO doc is, in fact, a turning point of the movie. It’s the moment Mickey comes to his senses about Dicky, Dicky half comes to his senses about himself, and the family’s eyes, at least momentarily, are opened. For a second I condemned this family, the awful mother, Alice (an incredible Melissa Leo), and those harpyish sisters, for needing HBO to show them how their son/brother lives. A second later I realized we all need such docs about our loved ones. My older brother is an alcoholic, about which he and I have no delusions, but I don’t know how he spends his days. The people closest to us are still unknowable.
When the HBO doc airs, Dicky’s in prison, on too many counts to mention, but he hasn’t lost his swagger. As they’re about to air the doc, he revels in the attention and applause the other inmates give him. “Going to Hollywood!” he says. He thinks it’s going to be fun. He’s forgotten what he’s said. He doesn’t know who he is.
Out in the world, Dicky is full of lies and bonhomie but in the doc he speaks the truth. “You feel young, like everything’s in front of you,” he says of smoking crack. “Then it fades and you have to get high again.” There is no comeback. The comeback is in the crackpipe.
Up to this point, Dicky has not only been a lousy brother and son, he’s been a lousy trainer, too. Mickey is forced to wait for him at the gym; he’s forced to wait for him with the limo that’ll take them to the airport, and then to Vegas, to fight another welterweight. But in Vegas Mickey is told his opponent has come down with the flu and the replacement is a middleweight, a guy with 20 pounds on him. He fights him anyway and gets his face smashed in. Back in Lowell, he and his soon-to-be-girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), are talking:
Mickey: Everybody said I could beat him.
Charlene: Who’s everybody?
Mickey: My mother and my brother.
(Earlier they’d had a bit of dialogue as spare as anything by David Mamet. Mickey has two bandages on his face and Charlene tells him, “Your thing’s coming off.” He reaches for the bandage above his right eye and she says, “Your other thing.”)
Mickey should be the pampered center of attention—as any contender is—but his needs are overshadowed by his brother’s, who sucks the air out of any room he swaggers or stumbles into. Everyone warns Mickey he needs to cut his brother loose or miss his shot, and, after the HBO doc, he takes their advice. A local cop and trainer, Mickey O’Keefe (playing himself), begins to train him, with money from a local businessman. The mother has a fit, and flies at her son and Charlene, with claws bared and tongue wagging, her awful daughters tagging along. A fight breaks out among the women. A catfight? Not close. There’s nothing sexy about it. Family is no support here. The mother, like Dicky, thinks she’s the center of the story when Mickey’s the one in the ring. Much of the movie is spent waiting for Mickey to realize this, to articulate this, himself.
Once he breaks free from his family, once he has the money to train year round, he begins to win, but the movie knows this isn’t the whole answer. Mickey’s been called a “stepping stone,” the guy other guys use to get their shot, and before a big match with Alfonso Sanchez, an undefeated contender with a title shot, Mickey visits Dicky in prison and is asked about his fight strategy. In the audience we’re thinking, “Don’t tell him,” but Mickey tells him and Dicky finds fault and offers an alternative. In the audience we’re thinking, “Don’t listen, get out, don’t let him drag you down again,” but it turns out Mickey’s original fight strategy got him nowhere. It’s Dicky’s, adopted late in the match, that wins the match. Now it’s Mickey with a title shot.
First, more family drama. It’s not enough to break free of family—as nice as that sounds—because you’re never truly free of family. So conflicts have to be resolved. People have to be reconciled. Out of prison, back in the gym, and back in the ring with his brother, Dicky has scattered Mickey’s supporters—Mickey O’Keefe, Charlene—and left him with his mother and sisters, who talk up Dicky yet again, who confuse the movie yet again, and it’s Mickey’s Popeye moment. All he can stands, he can’t stands no more. Thus: body blow, body blow, Dicky goes down. Mickey finally finds his voice. He confronts his mother, his sisters, his brother. He basically says, as we all need to say, “This is my movie!”
For something so messy for so long, it gets neat quickly. Kudos to the filmmakers for making it seem plausible that within five minutes of screentime: 1) Mickey finds his voice; 2) Dicky gives up crack and rallies his brother’s original supporters; and 3) Mother and sisters accept their subordinate status. And we’re set up for our finale and the title shot.
The Fighter” is a good movie, a worthy movie, but not a great movie. Wahlberg is fine, but he’s playing his gentle-voiced, blending-into-the-background leading man again. (See: “Planet of the Apes,” “The Truth About Charlie,” “The Italian Job.”) He’s a bit dull. In this way, the movie parallels its own story. Just as Dicky overshadows Mickey, so Bale’s performance overshadows Wahlberg’s. I’m not sure if this is ultimately a strength or a weakness, but I wish Wahlberg’s characters had as much in them as Wahlberg seems to.
But what is a weakness of the movie? That original “Rocky”-like synopsis. The basic story of “The Fighter” is the most oft-told story in Hollywood history: the underdog triumphs. It’s what we want while sitting in the audience but it’s also why the movie doesn’t resonate much afterwards. Mickey wins! That’s nice. This is what it takes to win! That’s nice. This is a story of two fighters, two brothers, Mickey and Dicky, who both triumph over their personal demons! That’s nice. And it ends. And it’s complete. And we’re happy.
That’s what makes great entertainment. But that’s not what makes great art.
I compare “The Fighter” inevitably, and unfairly, to Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” which is a movie about an entertainment (professional wrestling) rather than an art (boxing), yet is, itself, closer to art than entertainment. Because it finds a different way out. Its title character, Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke), is on the wrong end of his 40s, reaches a dead end and sees no alternatives, so his return to the ring, and impassioned speech in that ring—a triumph in the trailer—is actually a suicide. That’s the unique and horrifying way out. In the final shot we see Randy soaring off the turnbuckle and out of the picture and out of, one assumes, life, but we have to fill in the end ourselves. Maybe that’s why that movie keeps resonating. We have to assume its ending as much as we have to assume our own.
Review: “Please Give” (2010)
I met Nicole Holofcener briefly on the set of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” in 2004. I was visiting a friend there, a writer/story editor for the show, and she was directing an episode he had written, and after introductions I told her how much I liked her movie “Lovely & Amazing.” She quickly dismissed the compliment. Because most compliments are bullshit? Because inuring yourself to compliments is part of inuring yourself to criticism? I got the feeling she thought that no one had actually seen the movie. This was in the days before I seriously looked at box-office numbers and so I had that warped perspective that my milieu was the milieu. To me, “Lovely & Amazing” wasn’t a film with a limited release of 175 theaters around the U.S. It was a film that showed up in Seattle and never went away. Everyone talked about it.
It’s a shame we had this disconnect before I could compliment her on the film’s opening scene. Remember? Michelle Marks (Catherine Keener) is trying to sell her homemade trinkets to a trinket store and she runs into a former classmate, who seems cool and collected, and she asks what she’s been doing. “I’m a doctor,” the woman says. Michelle thinks the woman is joking and laughs. How could someone be a doctor already? “We’re 36,” the woman says. It’s a brutal scene with which I wholly identified. Peers become professionals, they become parents and adults, and you’re left behind trying to sell crappy gimcracks at some crappy gimcrack store. Life, somehow, has passed you by.
I never saw “Friends with Money,” Holofcener’s 2006 film about this same subject—the divide between friends with success/money and those without—possibly because the reviews were so-so. I wanted to see “Please Give” in the theaters this spring (widest release: 272 theaters) but time slipped away. Plus it looked, you know, a little precious: a slice-of-life about the vague wants and distractions of solipsistic New Yorkers. But lately it’s been landing on some top 10 lists so I decided to check it out.
It’s a little precious: a slice-of-life about the vague wants and distractions of solipsistic New Yorkers.
Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) run a mid-century vintage furniture store for people with more money than sense: a table for $5,000, bookcases for $1,400 apiece. Kate acquires these pieces by visiting the homes and condos of the recently deceased and paying off relatives who don’t know the true value (or the true inflated value) of the furniture; who just want it all gone. It’s a ghoulish gig. There’s a sense of waiting for people to die in order to live. Kate and Alex are also waiting for their 91-year-old-neighbor, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), to die, so they can combine her condo with their own and make something bigger and better.
Alex is fine with all of this. He’s an unremarkable middle-aged man who listens to Howard Stern and never reads any more—even magazines—but Kate feels increasingly guilty. She feels she’s taking advantage of people. Her guilt manifests itself in giving money—$5 here, $20 there—to panhandlers. At one point she even gives a doggy bag to a black man on the street but he’s simply waiting for a table at a crowded restaurant. Apologies ensue. She exudes the need to be forgiven. Her attempts at volunteering for the less fortunate are equally inept. She pities them. An elderly woman is stooped from rheumatoid arthritis. “Is it painful?” she says. “It looks very painful.” She tries to help kids with learning disabilities but feels so sorry for them she begins to cry. “You have to leave now,” the director of the facility tells her. It’s the best part of the movie.
Their counterparts in the solicitude/stoicism dichotomy are Andra’s granddaughters: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a passive mammogram technician, who cares too much about Grandma, and Mary (Amanda Peet), an overly tanned spa technician, who cares too little, and who begins an affair—surely one of the more unlikely affairs in movies—with dumpy ol’ Alex. He’s attracted to her, she’s bored. They bond over Howard Stern.
We get some good bits with Grandma—“You gained weight!” she tells Alex, bluntly, in the manner of the aged—but Holofcener also reminds us of the unbearable sadness of aging: losing your mobility, your sight, the world shrinking until your one solace are the idiot rhythms of “Entertainment Tonight.” George Clooney is an actor who has it all... This stuff is in the background of her place all the time, and there’s a kind of horror to it. That awful, chummy language about people we don’t know. When she dies, it’s one of the six sentences spoken at her funeral: “She liked watching ‘Entertainment Tonight.’”
In this manner, “Please Give” touches on important themes but then leaves them alone. It’s a slice of life that still manages to feel artificial. Plus there’s nothing driving the story. All of these New Yorkers are as passive as Seattleites. They all feel peripheral.
Let’s ask the dramatist’s question: What do the characters want? Kate and Alex want people to die, and for this Kate wants to be forgiven. Rebecca wants a boyfriend, and winds up with one, but overall she’s not quite there. Who is she? I have no clue. Mary thinks of herself as a straight talker, but her obsession with a clothing clerk turns out, in the final act, to be a pathetic version of stalking. Meanwhile, Kate and Alex’s 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele, in a fine performance), wants a $200 pair of jeans. She’s the most clearly defined character in the film.
Review: “Fair Game” (2010)
WARNING: The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of SPOILERS from Africa.
We like being lied to. That’s the problem.
We like the lies of Hollywood in particular. We like believing we are good, and others are bad, and we stare them down and shoot them down and ride off into the sunset. We like this narrative so much we’ve transferred it into the real world, which is complex and problematic, then we’re surprised when the narrative falls apart. Or do we simply ignore it when it falls apart? We move on to other narratives, other lies, and keep digging ourselves in deeper. It’s like our national debt but with lies. We tell one lie to make up for another to make up for another. Soon we’re steeped in it. We’re a sick country, a sick race. Are we tired of it yet? Do we want to know what’s true anymore?
“Fair Game” is a movie about a series of lies perpetrated by the Bush administration, sometimes on itself, and certainly on us, from 2002 to 2005. They were lies with massive consequences, lies that got us into war, lies that led to the deaths of tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe someone you knew. Maybe someone close to you is now dead because of what the Bush administration wanted to believe. They reconfigured the globe because of what they wanted to believe. The one time they told the truth, it was a treasonous act. But they got away with that, too, because they lied their way out of it.
My god. Can we be incensed again? Is that still possible? Let’s run through it.
We got into a war because of lies.
When a man called us on one of those lies, we lied about him. We tried to ruin his life.
When that wasn’t enough, we told the truth about his wife. She was a CIA agent and we outed her. We cast her aside. She was a good soldier, and “Support the Troops” signs were everywhere back then, but her husband was pointing out the lies in the war narrative so she had to be sacrificed to make the Joe-Wilson-is-incompetent narrative work. She was, as Karl Rove later said, fair game. To Karl Rove, we're all fair game.
The movie should work. It should work the way that “All the President’s Men” works and “The Insider” works. Two people, attempting to uncover the truth, take on a vast, powerful entity intent on continuing the lie. It’s a classic underdog narrative, the kind Hollywood loves producing. And it’s true.
But it doesn’t quite work here, does it? “Fair Game” is a good movie, a necessary movie, a movie you want more people to watch. But Doug Liman doesn’t make it sing the way Alan J. Pakula made “All the President’s Men” sing and the way Michael Mann made “The Insider” sing. Why?
Is it because he shows us some of the inner workings of the Bush White House? Was that a mistake? Pakula never got us into the Nixon White House and Mann only showed us a snippet of a conversation between Brown & Williamson’s CEO and his lawyers—a snippet, it can be argued, that Jeff Wigand (Russell Crowe) could hear as he stormed out of the CEO’s office. Isn’t it better to keep the enemy at a distance? Shadowy? Unseen? Wasn’t that the lesson of “Jaws”?
Or is the problem that, of the two heroes in “Fair Game,” neither is a reporter? Both heroes in “President’s Men” were reporters: Watergate was a mystery and they were trying to uncover the truth. One of the heroes of “The Insider” was a reporter, and he was trying to get a former tobacco company vice-president, Wigand, and then his network, CBS, to reveal the truth. In “Fair Game,” we’re down to zero. The reporters in this movie don’t uncover the truth, they help cover it up. They have high-ranking government sources who feed them information, or disinformation, which they then spread. They provide obfuscation rather than clarity. They ambush the hero outside his house. “Isn’t it true...?” “What about the allegations that...?” They’re part of the problem.
No, the heroes in “Fair Game” are a career diplomat, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), and his wife, an undercover CIA operative, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). For most of the movie, they’re working on different aspects of the post-9/11 world. She’s trying to find the bad guys in the Middle East and he’s sent to Niger to see if one Middle East ruler, Saddam Hussein, bought, or tried to buy, yellowcake uranium there. He concludes no, the administration concludes otherwise, and Pres. Bush, in his January 2003 State of the Union speech, says the 16 words that provide a justification for war:
The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
Initially Wilson concludes he’s referring to another country in Africa. He assumes they have other information. But after the war, in a New York Times Op-Ed, he comes out with what he knows.
It’s startling reading that Op-Ed, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” now, more than seven years later. Its language is so mild. It’s so straightforward. Wilson writes:
If my information was deemed inaccurate, I understand (though I would be very interested to know why). If, however, the information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses. (It's worth remembering that in his March ''Meet the Press'' appearance, Mr. Cheney said that Saddam Hussein was ''trying once again to produce nuclear weapons.'') At a minimum, Congress, which authorized the use of military force at the president's behest, should want to know if the assertions about Iraq were warranted.
Wilson’s Op-Ed was published on Sunday, July 6, 2003. A day later the White House admitted its “WMD error.” A week after that, Robert Novak came out with his column, “Mission to Niger,” in which Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA agent.
Despite the outing, Novak’s column is fairly tame, too. He even owns up to Wilson’s exemplary background:
His first public notice had come in 1991 after 15 years as a Foreign Service officer when, as U.S. charge in Baghdad, he risked his life to shelter in the embassy some 800 Americans from Saddam Hussein's wrath. My partner Rowland Evans reported from the Iraqi capital in our column that Wilson showed “the stuff of heroism.” The next year, President George H.W. Bush named him ambassador to Gabon, and President Bill Clinton put him in charge of African affairs at the National Security Council until his retirement in 1998.
But Novak is also sloppy. His second paragraph begins this way:
Wilson's report that an Iraqi purchase of uranium yellowcake from Niger was highly unlikely was regarded by the CIA as less than definitive...
By the CIA? Or by certain officials within the CIA? The question was never whether Wilson’s account was definitive or viewed as definitive; the question was, and remains, why the Bush administration believed Report B over Report A.
In the movie, Wilson’s Op-Ed leads to a discussion between Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, in which the former says, “We need to change the story,” and the latter says, ominously, “Who is Joe Wilson?” For the rest of the movie, they create their own Joe Wilson in the press. Misinformation is spread. The truth struggles to get out.
After Novak’s column is published, Plame scrambles to protect her operatives. “I have 819 teams in the field,” she says. “It’s over,” she’s told. Then she clams up. She plays the good soldier. There’s a scene where she and CIA director George Tenet (Bruce McGill) meet on a park bench facing the White House, and Tenet tells her: “Joe is out there on his own, Valerie.” I assumed this meant: help him. But it means, to both him and her, abandon him. Which she does.
For most of the final third of the movie, Plame and Wilson are at odds. She even moves back in with her folks. She abandons him as surely as Jeff Wigand’s wife abandoned Wigand. The difference is that Michael Mann shows how this affects Wigand; Liman shows how this affects Plame. In terms of drama, it’s all wrong. For the final third of the movie, Plame is the good soldier for the wrong side and the movie doesn’t own up to it. It takes 20 minutes of screentime, plus a no-nonsense speech by Sam Shepard, Mr. Right Stuff, as her father, for her to come to the dramatically obvious conclusion that she needs to join her husband in fighting the Bush White House. Then she testifies before Congress, and Joe Wilson talks to students about the necessity of participation in a democracy, and we get a bit of flag-waving at the end. The End.
Feel dissatisfied? You should. For the following reason most of all:
The work of Woodward and Bernstein led to the resignation of Pres. Richard Nixon.
The work of Wigand and Bergmann led to one of the most successful lawsuits in the history of this country, in which the tobacco companies agree to pay $246 billion to all 50 states.
The work of Wilson and Plame led to ... the prosecution of Scooter Libby. Who was pardoned.
We don’t get the ending we want. The truth gets out there and nothing happens. Because we, as a country, don’t want to know the truth. We want our comfortable lies. For “Fair Game” to work, it needed to own up to this. It needed to show us, perhaps during the end credits, all of the lies and bullshit since that fateful spring and summer: Abu Ghraib and Pat Tillman and fake White House correspondents and firing U.S. attorneys and “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie” and “Keep Gov’t Out of My Medicare” and “You lie!” and birthers and Obama = Hitler. And on and on. They got away with it all and they’re still getting away with it. Their lies used to emanate from the White House and now they're directed at the White House, and, if anything, the liars have gotten bolder.