It's been a while since Hollywood had some success with dramatizing contemporary history. You have to reach back to All the President's Men to find a really good example of holding a mirror up to an event that was still relatively fresh in our nation's consciousness. The Dustin Hoffman-Robert Redford film came out a scant two years after the zenith of the Watergate scandal. Not only did the movie succeed critically in 1976 (claiming eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture), but it also holds up wonderfully as a crackerjack political thriller.
Sure, Oliver Stone has spun his whacked-out tales of Kennedy, Nixon and George W. Bush but his efforts are more ham-fisted than meaty docudramas.
So it was with trepidation but great expectation that I approached Fair Game, the cinematic treatise of the Valerie Plame scandal. Keep in mind that her story comes with a supporting cast of Bush, Scooter Libby, Robert Novak and Karl Rove.
You don't have to go much further than seven years to refresh your memory on this story. In his 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush spooked the nation with a revelation about "significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Months later, former ambassador Joe Wilson wrote a scathing op-ed piece for The New York Times, basically saying the president was full of malarkey. The White House lashed back by leaking to the press the disclosure of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife. What followed was a political firestorm, a private one at first and then very public.
It's a scintillating story to read in Plame's memoir of the same name, but it's not your typical foundation for a film. Yet, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Ultimatum) pulls it off in fine style, peeling away the layers of the story like an onion. Sean Penn stars as Joe Wilson and in a career-defining performance, Naomi Watts plays Plame. To date, Watts has played nuanced, troubled characters (21 Grams, The Painted Veil, Mulholland Drive) but here she balances ferocity and sympathy. And anyone who thinks that Watts is too glamorous for the role clearly hasn't seen a photograph of Valerie Plame. Penn is, well, Sean Penn. It is quite possible that the second half of Penn's career is as good as, if not better than, his first--and that's considerable.
Washington insiders are already at odds over the film's accuracy. I'd worry about that if it weren't for the fact that it's the same characters taking the same sides as they did when the real-life scandal was playing out just a few years ago.
All said, Fair Game works on many levels: as an excellent adaptation of Plame's memoir, as a master class in acting, and maybe most of all as a fine drama.
Other Hits ... Or Misses
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1--Daniel Radcliffe stars in a subtle art-house film that desperately needs to find an audience. Let's pray that somebody actually goes to see this little gem.
Tamara Drewe--Gemma Arterton stars as the girl most likely to get a nose job and come back to her hometown and tell everybody to suck it. This pleasant sex-comedy is based on a weekly British comic strip, which is based on the 19th century novel Far From the Madding Crowd.