Monday, April 26, 2010

Fair Game

Genre: Real Life Political Thriller
Premise: The story of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent who was outed after the U.S. could not find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
About: Fair Game stars Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, Joe Wilson. It was directed by Doug Liman and will be premiering at the Cannes Film Festival (in what may be the most brilliant marketing tactic ever – an anti-Iraq War film premiering in France). For those who remember, Liman directed the original Bourne Identity, so this is somewhat familiar territory for him. Oh, and for Modern Family fans, of which I am one, Ty Burrel also has a small part in the movie, playing one of Valerie’s friends. The writers, Jez and John Butterworth, also wrote Michael Mann’s next film, about war photographer Robert Capa's relationship with fellow photojournalist Gerda Taro while they were each covering the Spanish Civil War.
Writers: Jez and John Butterworth (based on the memoir by Valerie Plame Wilson)
Details: 114 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

So this is the big script I was talking about the other day that a friend recommended to me. This is a guy who reads a lot of scripts and he proclaimed to me, point blank, that this was the best script he’d read in three years. When a fellow reader says that to me, I have no choice but to put it on top of the reading pile. But there was only one problem. We didn’t discuss what it was about. And if we had, we probably would’ve determined that it never stood a chance with me.

“Fair Game” explores the inner workings of the CIA leading up to the Iraq War, specifically in relation to their hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Ah yes, the whole WMD fiasco. Did we or didn’t we know the truth ahead of time? That is the question. Well, let me just explain why I never got into the whole debate. To me, WMDs were never the real issue with Iraq. We were going into Iraq no matter what. We’d been wanting to get rid of Saddam Hussein for 15 years, and September 11th gave the U.S. that opportunity. If it wasn’t going to be WMDs, it was going to be something else. I guess people were interested in the scandal and the government lying. But to me it was like, “Well no shit they lied. They needed to start a war and they needed to do it quickly.” I would’ve been more surprised to find out they hadn’t lied. So the whole conspiracy had no drama as far as I was concerned.

But for the sake of the review, let me lay out the story because the script has a funky structure to it that I think is worth discussing. “Fair Game” takes place not long after September 11th, and introduces us to Valerie Plame, a young CIA agent who’s been tasked with gathering intel on Iraq’s weapons program. Around that time, Iraq supposedly made a purchase from Niger that included millions of aluminum rods, the kind of rods that scientists use to enrich uranium. You know, so they can build nuclear bombs. So Valerie put together a small group of undercover Iraqis who agreed to go into Iraq and question family members in the weapons program to find out if they had nuclear capability. In return, she promised, she would get them and their families out of Iraq and into safety.

So away her footsoldiers went and they found out what we know now. There were no weapons. The nuclear program had been dissolved over a decade ago. As Valerie then tried to give her report to her superiors, the U.S. decided they had the information they needed, and invaded Iraq anyway. After the invasion, when no WMDs were found, the press started sniffing around, and the U.S. realized they had to cover their tracks. So those same people Valerie swore she would protect were now marked targets of the U.S. Government. Since they could attest to the fact that the U.S. knew there were no WMDs before their invasion, they had to be taken out.

Just as this fallout starts ramping up, however, the script takes a big left turn, shifting abruptly to a Washington Post article that outs Valerie as a CIA operative. What appears to have happened is that Valerie’s husband, a U.S. ambassador, had written an article accusing the U.S. of knowing the truth about the WMDs because of a report he had given to them. In retaliation, someone from the White House leaked Valerie's CIA status to the Washington Post.

Whereas everything up to this point (a good 60-70 pages) had been about the plot which led to the invasion of Iraq, now the script became this personal journey about how a CIA operative lives with being outed. She has to go to all her friends and apologize for lying to them for 20 years. She has to explain to her kids why she’s being publicly shunned. Things like that. I suppose this won't matter as much if the marketing for the film educates the public on Plame's story, so that they anticipate this turn of events, but for me, someone who didn't know anything about her, I was stuck going, "What kind of movie is this supposed to be??"

If Modern Family isn't the best sit-com on television, what is?

Because if you think about it, this easily could’ve been four different movies. We start out with Valerie being a James Bond/Jason Bourne like super-agent, traveling the world and gaining access to top foreign leaders. Then the story shifts into this extensive procedural about the minutiae of how we gather information and the specifics that led up to the invasion of Iraq. Then the script shifts to the fallout of said invasion. And finally, it shifts to Valerie’s life after she was outed. Each one of those could’ve been explored as a full film. So having them all in the same film was a bit jarring for me.

But, like my buddy who recommended this, I expect those of you entrenched in the WMD scandal and in Plame’s story in particular to eat this up. It reminded me, in many ways, of Michael Mann’s “The Insider.” (not surprising then, that he liked the writers enough to hire them on his next film), which is another film that demands a lot from you. So, if you enjoyed Russel Crowe’s turn in that movie, you’ll want to check this out for sure. Oh, and I’d be remiss not to mention the great reveal/payoff at the end of the script. It’s truly terrifying, and will definitely make you think twice about what’s going on inside our government’s walls. If only this story would’ve been a little more straightforward, I may have enjoyed it. But my simple brain can’t handle all this zigging and zagging. Just wasn’t my thing.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: A common mistake writers make in their pursuit of trying to get you to like their hero, is being too transparent in their attempt. They’ll have the hero save a dog in the opening scene, or carry groceries up for the old lady who lives next door. Having your character be helpful (or "heroic") isn’t the only way to get us to like them, and many times, can be so obvious as to have the opposite effect. In Fair Game, they get us to like Valerie in a pretty nifty way. In the opening scene, Valerie is on a mission to speak with a very rich Arab man on false pretenses (she’s presenting herself as a business woman). But she must first make it past his suspicious nephew, who starts asking pointed questions, questions it seems like Valerie isn't prepared for. The first is if she’s from America. No, she assures him, she’s from Canada. Toronto to be precise (hoping that will be the end of it). He quickly asks her if she’s a Maple Leafs fan. No, she tells him, she’s not (we believe so that she won’t have to answer any specific questions about the team). Really, he notes. So then you’re the one person who lives in Toronto who’s not a hockey fan? A pause. Is she busted? What does she do now? Then, out of nowhere Valerie says, “Oh I’m a fan. Dad’s from Vancouver, so I’m a Canuck. Between us, the Maple Leaves suck. They should never have signed Mark Bell. Guy’s a liability on an off the ice. So who’s your team?” -- And boom. Right there, we like Valerie. How did they do it? Simple. They had the main character outsmart an asshole (or “bad guy”). Everybody likes a person who puts the bully in their place. So just remember, be creative with your scene that makes us like your hero. If you’re too transparent, we’ll see through it and dock you for trying to manipulate us.