4 Stars Movies

When happens when you tell the Bush Administration what they don’t want to hear: Fair Game

Doug Liman’s Fair Game is an important movie. The legacy of the Bush Administration’s war on terror comprises many grand injustices: civilian casualties, torture, increased resentment worldwide, eroded civil liberties, et al. In other words, lots of raw material for screenplays.

Most treatments of the war on terror in movies so far have been fictional explorations of its cost upon American soldiers and their families (including The Messenger and In the Valley of Elah). Fair Game belongs to a different genre: the dramatization of actual figures in the midst of specific events. Fair Game is structured as a more conventional biopic than more rigorous recreations like The Road to Guantanamo, United 93, and Zero Dark Thirty.

Fair Game dramatizes the public scapegoating of CIA officer Valerie Plame and former Ambassador to Africa Joe Wilson simply because their jobs tasked them with giving answers to difficult questions, questions that they didn’t realize had already been given scripted answers by the Bush Administration. Plame and Wilson’s intelligence conflicted with the preconceived fictional narrative that Iraq was pursing a nuclear weapons program. Plame and Wilson were both firmly ensconced within the system, and chewed up by it when they tried to resist their exploitation.

Naomi Watts in Fair Game
Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame in Fair Game

One possible flaw with Fair Game is that it strives to position Plame and Wilson as the protagonists of a traditional two-hour biopic narrative. They are burdened with traditional character motivations, such as to clear their names, save their marriage, and expose villainy. The facts of history don’t really make for a conventionally satisfying climax to a thriller plot. When Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff Scooter Libby was convicted for perjury and obstruction of justice, it was through no direct action of the fictionalized Plame and Wilson.

Fair Game rightly highlights Plame and Wilson’s heroism in exposing the administration’s lies, but the demands of a conventional biopic to present its protagonists as having vindicated themselves doesn’t really fit in this particular case.

2 Stars Movies

Oliver Stone skips over the defining moments of George W. Bush’s life in W.

I had the same issues with Oliver Stone’s W. that I do with every biopic. As virtually every feature film biography attempts to do the job of a book, they inevitably fall into the same trap: they become highlights reels that merely illustrate key moments in a real-life figure’s life, spanning decades. With a few exceptions (American Splendor, Control), any narrative throughline is impossible; meaning, there is no story.

Stone attempts to tie together his fragmented examination of the life of George W. Bush with the theme of his relationship with his father, George H.W. Bush. In this view, Junior both loved and hated his father, and both wanted to impress him and to prevail where he perceived that he failed (it’s clear now even to this staunch pacifist and Democrat that Bush the elder was wise to not extend the first Gulf War into a nationbuilding exercise in Iraq).

Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!

Screenwriter Stanley Weiser chooses the conception of the phrase “Axis of Evil” as the starting point, and ends the film with the infamous press conference in which the arrogant Bush was unable to name any mistakes he may have made in office. Stone flashes back many times to Bush’s prior life as a trust fund wastrel, but skips over almost everything that I would define as defining moments: becoming a born again Christian, deciding to run for president, announcing to his staff that they are going to war in Iraq (it’s a matter of record Bush said “Fuck Saddam. We’re taking him out.”) and of course, September 11 itself.

Oliver Stone's W.
I’m George W. Bush, bitches!

The most obvious failure of biopics is that they typically become opportunities for famous actors to do impressions of historical figures. In this case, the subjects are so fresh that many of them are still in office and on television every night now, so the danger is that W. could come too close to the easy satire of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update.

That said, Josh Brolin is excellent as George W. Bush, in a performance that captures many of the man’s peculiar tics but doesn’t come across as a forced caricature. Similarly, Richard Dreyfus is remarkably restrained as Dick Cheney, a role that many other actors would have been tempted to use as an excuse to chew the Oval Office scenery. But unfortunately, Thandiwe Newton (as Condoleezza Rice) struck me as the only cast member doing a forced impression.

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