I admire Jeffrey Skoll and Participant Media, the company he founded. They have a clear vision: hire name directors to make aesthetically compelling political films that show heroic individuals fighting corporate or government bureaucracies and conclude with an actionable message to the audience. Sometimes this formula works well, on other occasions not so well, and here are two of each.
George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck employed an early Fifties black and white palette to recount broadcaster Edward R. Murrow’s battle against Senator McCarthy. Charlie Wilson’s War used Aaron Sorkin’s hyper-articulate walk-and-talk style to tell the story of the Congressman’s struggle to build support for arming the Afghan mujahideen in their ultimately successful war against the Soviets. Both movies made clear that the victory was ambiguous. Morrow helped drive McCarthy from the Senate but lost his prime time show. The Afghan mujahideen became the Taliban. While both movies supported a cause, neither told the viewer how to sign up after leaving the theater.
Niki Caro’s North Country oversimplified a long legal fight against sexual harassment (Jensen vs. Eveleth Taconite), turning it into one courtroom scene where a Perry Masonesque lawyer by breaking down a hostile witness redeems the protagonist, proving that she was not a teenage slut but rather a victim of rape. Conversely, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman spun too complicated a tale about charter schools and educational reformers. Both movies encouraged the viewer to visit a web site and join the cause: opposition to harassment in one, educational reform in the other.
So is the latest Participant Media offering, director Doug Liman’s Fair Game a hit or a miss? The terrain the movie covers is the relationship between politicians and professional public servants. Two episodes are at the heart of the movie.
Former ambassador Joseph Wilson was employed as a consultant to the CIA to determine whether Saddam Hussain’s regime was importing uranium fuel from Africa to produce weapons of mass destruction. When his finding that no such importing had happened was ignored by the Bush Administration, he spoke his truth publicly in an op ed in the New York Times.
The Bush Administration exacted revenge on Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, an undercover CIA agent, by leaking information that blew her cover and effectively terminated her career. The CIA reacted, appropriately, with damage control to salvage or cancel Plame’s operations. However, it failed to confront the White House on the destruction of its organizational capital. A contrast that comes to mind is Dominion Statistician Munir Sheikh’s resignation in protest against the Harper Government’s scrapping the long form census, a similar instance of destroying organizational capital.
As a student of public management, I wanted to know what constraints there were on Wilson going public (for instance, the terms of his consulting contract) and what was done with his report between the time he submitted it and the Administration ignored it. Fair Game didn’t adequately answer either question.
More broadly, Fair Game gave a considerable amount of attention to Valerie Plame’s dramatic career as a CIA agent before her cover was blown, but too little time and attention to the story of how she and her husband both used the media and the legal system to fight back. A contrast is All the President’s Men, which gave a full accounting of the journalistic craft Woodward and Bernstein used to trace the Watergate conspiracy back to the Oval Office.
That the White House attempted only to destroy the Wilsons’ careers is at least testimony to the robustness of American democracy. In other countries, for example Russia, a similar incident would have led to the whistleblowers paying with their lives. Plame would have died first, in the line of duty of course, and then Wilson, while on the run. In actual fact, the career most damaged by this episode was that of White House adviser Scooter Libby, who did prison time.
My final criticism is that I found Liman’s cinematic vision very unappealing. He filmed most of the movie through heavy filters (gauze and Vaseline?), giving it a muddy grey appearance, and shot stiflingly close to the actors.
On the other side of the ledger, what Fair Game did well was allow Sean Penn and Naomi Watts to portray a marriage of professional opposites – he, expansive and extroverted, she guarded and secretive – that was almost destroyed under pressure.
Finally, I must praise Sam Shepherd’s cameo as Plame’s father. On Plame’s visit to her parents to seek their support when the situation looked bleakest, in just a few sentences he communicated two key messages: good marriages survive storms and she had been a fighter, not a quitter, all her life. Perhaps that scene was an example of truthiness, not truthfulness, but it still worked, and the messages resonate beyond the movie.
Moving from the depiction of the events to the events, ultimately the Wilsons should derive three sources of satisfaction from this tumultuous episode in their lives. First, their marriage survived, and, by going public, they turned the attempt to destroy their careers into new careers as writers and advocates. Second, they cast doubt on the rationale for the war in Iraq and thereby contributed to undermining it. Third, they helped, literally, to take down George Bush’s reputation. American presidents remain moral guides, either to emulate or avoid, long after their terms of office are over, so their ranking in the annals of the presidency matters.