Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Separating Paranoia From Heightened Consciousness: Doug Liman's Fair Game

Conspiracies are as old as the dawn of civilization. They consistently intrigued Shakespeare. Bye-bye, Julius Caesar. Tough luck, Macbeth. Some speculate on the true identity of the Bard himself; Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, due out in late 2011, will address this controversy. But, in the modern era, the very notion of a conspiracy theory gained credence immediately after the November 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. We have not been the same since. Nowadays, everyone’s suspicious of everything. On the lunatic fringe, there are the Truthers (Who really attacked the World Trade Center?), the Birthers (Where was Obama actually born?) and, a cherished chestnut, People Who Suspect the Fluoridation of Water is a Communist Plot.

Yet, for those of us with more reasoned fears, it’s often difficult to separate paranoia from heightened consciousness. To quote Kurt Cobain, who must have borrowed it from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22: “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.” That certainly is the case for Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame in Fair Game, a sympathetic biographical film tracing the D.C. couple’s nightmare at the hands of the vindictive Bush administration. Although unseen except in genuine news footage, the chief perpetrators are Karl Rove and the even more powerful Dick Cheney (On a Baghdad battlefield, this contemporary Richard III might plead: “A heart, a heart. My kingdom for a heart!”). But the Central Intelligence Agency — where Plame is an undercover operative until exposed for devious purposes — comes across as a bastion of back-stabbers.

The whole shebang begins when the CIA sends Wilson (remarkably lookalike Sean Penn), a former diplomat posted over the years to Iraq and five African countries, to Niger in 2002. The report on his mission indicates that Saddam Hussein has not been trying to purchase uranium yellowcake there, as purported. In challenging Dubya’s televised statement to the contrary, Wilson then invites a world of hurt by writing an op-ed piece for The New York Times four months after the preemptive 2003 invasion.

Naomi Watts and Sean Penn in Fair Game
The White House conspirators seek revenge by leaking information to the media about Valerie (Naomi Watts), whose covert speciality is unearthing hidden nuclear proliferation in the Third World. This revelation endangers her Iraqi informants. She is denigrated in the press. As colleagues at the agency throw her under the proverbial bus, she still hopes to stay out of the spotlight — a place where Joe feels quite comfortable. He demands justice, which the Washington crowd manages to evade, other than eventually allowing Cheney henchman Scooter Libby to fall on his sword for the boss. Meanwhile, the Wilson marriage begins to unravel.

Oliver North testifying before Congress
Only people living on the moon this century could be unaware of the story, which both Plame and Wilson recounted in their memoirs, respectively Fair Game and The Politics of Truth. Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) is the son of Arthur Liman, chief counsel for the Senate investigation of what’s known as the Iran-Contra Affair. Talk about a conspiracy! In conjunction with Israeli intermediaries in the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan’s minions sold arms to Iran, despite an embargo. The proceeds funded the counterrevolutionaries fighting the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, an act prohibited by Congress. CIA-sanctioned planes may have been used to transport these weapons south then carry cocaine north, reportedly instrumental in creating a crack epidemic in Los Angeles.The same government agency had already been suspected of bringing home opium from the Golden Triangle during the Vietnam War, when heroin flooded black communities to stem the rising tide of activism. (Roger Spottiswoode’s Air America depicts some of this history, with Mel Gibson as a pilot whose superiors are smuggling narcotics.)

Once the Iran-Contra scandal broke, 14 officials were convicted but soon pardoned by Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush. Some of those felons were hired by his son, when he occupied the Oval Office. There’s a through-line of shady characters, in fact, that traverses the failed Bay of Pigs invasion (1961), the Kennedy assassination (1963), Vietnam, Watergate, death squads in El Salvador, the Nicaraguan miseries and the anguish of Iraq.

These folks have been dubbed The Secret Team, a league of extralegal gentlemen from the military and various intelligence groups that were trafficking drugs, killing foreign leaders, waging undeclared wars, topping elected governments and defying the Constitution with relative impunity. Former Marine Lieutenant Colonel and indicted co-conspirator Oliver North, currently host of a show on Fox News, had devised a 1980s contingency plan to impose martial law and establish detention camps run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — FEMA, which two decades later did such a heck of a job in post-Katrina New Orleans! These schemes were to be implemented in the event of public resistance to incursions into any sovereign nation of our choosing.

John Negroponte in Honduras in 1984
The insidious John Negroponte is like the eponymous shape-shifter in Woody Allen’s Zelig. He went from being stationed by the Foreign Service in Saigon during the 1960s to U.S. ambassador in Honduras (overseeing the Contra effort) to United Nations representative (2001-2004) to ambassador in Iraq (2004-2005) to Director of National Intelligence (2005-2007) to Deputy Secretary of State under Condoleezza Rice (until Obama’s inauguration in early 2009). God only knows what he’s up to now.

In 1971, my sketchy faith in American democracy disappeared altogether after hearing a talk by Mae Brussell, a California researcher and radio commentator. Her beliefs make Oliver Stone’s JFK warm and fuzzy by comparison. She claimed that the Kennedy assassination essentially was part of an ongoing coup in which the U.S. government was overthrown by domestic right-wingers in collaboration with Nazis. One man in particular, General Reinhard Gehlen, had been Hitler’s top intelligence officer responsible for spying on the Soviet Union. When the defeat of Germany was imminent, he escaped with his extensive files and continued doing the same gig for the CIA, while also hiring hundreds of his Nazi brethren.

The reason for killing a president? He had threatened to dismantle the clandestine organization following the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba, apparently vowing to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds."

This legacy of so much nefarious behavior is my way of saying that Fair Game can be great fun for paranoiacs like me. Love the narrative. Admire the performances. Watts and Penn, together again! But, somehow, the thriller is missing the oomph of The Manchurian Candidate, All the President's Men, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor or even John Carpenters’s aliens-walk-among-us They Live. Where Liman should blaze a trail through the ferocious facts, momentum slows. Although never boring, the action does drag every so often. Then again, as Shakespeare wrote exactly 400 years ago in The Tempest, “Open-eyed conspiracy its time doth take.”

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of  Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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