Fairly damn good ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fairly damn good

Fair Game
My rating:

Let's face it, Malaysia is starved for quality cinema. I've complained before about how the highly-acclaimed, award-winning movies never make it to our shores, because our cinema distributors don't bring them in. Because they think Malaysian audiences are all morons. And honestly I can't really blame them, because Malaysian audiences are morons - as a perusal of the Lowyat.net discussion threads on The Social Network and Buried can tell you. Which is why I was surprised that Fair Game, a smart political thriller about the Valerie Plame affair - and how many Malaysians know anything about that - made it to our screens. But it's clear that Nusantara Edaran Filem did a shoddy job in bringing it over. The film reels are overexposed, giving the entire movie a burnt-out look. A number of dialogue scenes in Arabic weren't subtitled, and we had to rely on the (incompetent) BM subtitles. The projectionists got the aspect ratio wrong, and a bit off the top of the screen got cut off. (You think people don't notice these things, do you GSC Pavilion?) And I wouldn't be surprised if quite a bit of it was censored.

And yet, it was still a damn good movie. Oh my god you guys it is so good.

Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) and Valerie Plame Wilson (Naomi Watts) are a happily married couple with two young children. Joe is a former U.S. ambassador about to start a consulting business, and Val... is a covert CIA agent, a fact kept secret to everyone else they know. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Val is tasked with finding evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, and Joe is asked to go on a fact-finding mission to Niger to investigate a possible sale of enriched uranium. He finds no such evidence, and neither does Val in her own efforts to make contact with former Iraqi nuclear scientists. But when President Bush declares war and cites evidence that they both know is false, Joe is compelled to write an editorial to The New York Times - and in response, Vice Presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (David Andrews) blows Val's cover as a CIA agent. Her operations are compromised, her contacts' lives are endangered, their reputations are besmirched and their lives are ruined - as is possibly their marriage.

This is a fiercely intelligent, adult film based on true events related to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, an event of global significance. And yet whenever I try to gather my thoughts about it, I find myself gushing like a 12-year-old kid. Holy shit, this movie is good. I had zero expectations of it; all I had going in was a rare glowing review from AV Club, whose writings I respect and enjoy, but whose tastes don't often coincide with mine. And it's directed by Doug Liman, an inconsistent filmmaker - he made The Bourne Identity, then got kicked off the series; and his last film was Jumper, a truly misguided movie. (Short review: this guy's supposed to be a hero?) James Berardinelli didn't even review it. I honestly had no idea it was going to be this good.

It is both an espionage/political thriller as well as a marriage drama, and it's amazing how well it balances both and makes both compelling, even gripping. Liman also made Mr. and Mrs. Smith, whose premise was about the domestic lives of superspies when they're not out saving the world (or taking it over). This movie is the grownup version of that; Val is the real deal, a covert agent who travels round the world undercover, persuading "assets" to work for her with steely determination. (In the opening scenes, she's in Kuala Lumpur, and I stayed through the film's end credits just to make sure they were really filmed here. How cool is that?) And then she comes home to her husband, goes out socializing with their friends, and stays wryly quiet as they pontificate ignorantly about the same world-shaking events that she is affecting.

But while this is intriguing enough, it's just the setup. The real story doesn't begin until Joe writes that editorial, and Joe is every bit as fascinating a character as Val. He's portrayed as a fierce patriot, but not political; he speaks out against the war simply because he's not the kind of man who can sit by while a lie is being told. His courage and steadfast adherence to his principles is easy to admire, but it's also clear that that very same rigidity is also his greatest fault. While Val's career, her operations, her promises to save the lives of her contacts are all falling apart around her, Joe is in the press and on TV fighting to defend their besmeared names, and it's hard to fault him for it. And when both their battles conflict with one another and threaten to destroy their marriage, it's hard not to feel for them both.

Or maybe that's just how I see it. Because almost every scene in this movie works on more than one level, and what you get out of it depends on what you bring to it. Take the scene in which the tensions between Joe and Val bursts into the open in an ugly argument. You could take Joe at his words, which argue the rightness of his actions and are entirely convincing in doing so. Or you could look at how uncomfortably close the scene resembles domestic violence - an older, larger man screaming furiously at his wife who, at that moment, is trembling with anger and possibly fear. Yet both interpretations are correct; both are exactly what Liman and his screenwriters, Jez and John Butterworth, are trying to convey. It's amazing how dense and loaded with nuance and meaning this film is.

And it's almost needless to say that a film this good is naturally supported by some terrific acting. Sean Penn is excellent, and although Naomi Watts occasionally seems overshadowed by Penn's fiery performance, she gives it her all. (Oh, and if she looks a little too Hollywood-beautiful to play a CIA spy, check out what the real Valerie Plame looks like.) The movie really belongs to the both of them; amongst the rest of the cast, only David Andrews stands out, and if there's one dissatisfaction I had, it's that the smug little jerkass that he plays doesn't quite get his comeuppance in the end. But that's true to what really happened. Which brings us to the fact that all this is based on true events that happened as early as three years ago, making it quite the season for uncommonly timely films. American viewers may be sharply divided over this film depending on their political leanings, but Malaysians shouldn't have any problems. None of us believe there were WMDs in Iraq.

But I am failing in one of the duties as a film critic, which is to spread the word to my fellow viewers about good movies. This movie is on the last legs of its run in local cinemas, and by the time you read this review it might be over already. I'm tempted to exhort everyone to go watch it anyway, despite the overexposed film and the wrong aspect ratio and the possibly missing subtitles. (Maybe it was just GSC Pavilion's screwup.) But it's things like this that usually ruin my enjoyment of a film, yet Fair Game was excellent enough to mitigate it all. Forget the fact that it shares a title with Cindy Crawford's highly inauspicious 1995 screen debut. This is quality filmmaking, the stuff that engages your brain, your heart and your gut in equal measure. It is so good you guys.

NEXT REVIEW: Aku Masih Dara
Expectations: oh god, a gender-reversed Syurga Cinta


profwacko said...

Your review have convinced me and i have watched it this evening. Its definitely a good movie. Due to other big title like the tourist and local movie like makcik limah balik rumah, there were only 8 people in the hall watching this movie.

Before the end, i do really hopes that Val and Joe get back together again.

TMBF said...

@profwacko: Thanks for the vote of confidence. :) Most people would dismiss this as a movie that Malaysians wouldn't be interested in, but I think they just need to be prepared to watch something that's smart, timely and relevant. Because come on - it's anti-Iraq war, anti-Bush administration, and sympathetic towards Muslims. Why wouldn't it appeal to Malaysians?

Oh, and was the film overexposed as well?

Pet Shop Boys said...

setuju dengan 4 setengah bintang untuk filem ini

profwacko said...

yeah ... and i like that it shows the city and KLCC and even the famous spot our local film producer always choose ... the hill near taman mulia jaya ampang that shows the whole KL city.

son of the land said...

I almost passed up on this one, but sure am glad I didn't.
Went to see it a number of weeks ago, expecting an almost empty hall (which I kinda like), but was surprised it end up with a full house. I thought to myself, there's still hope for Malaysian cinema go-ers, though it's most probably because it was Wednesday.

Though my experience was marred by the guy next to me who casually took off his shoe, I had to cover my nose with a tissue along with others around us who can't stand the stench.