I am no stranger to U.S. government’s propensity to conspire against perceived enemies of the state. Having worked this entire year on a book with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s personal lawyer and trusted confidant Clarence B. Jones, I’ve had the dubious distinction of reviewing many disturbing, previously classified FBI and Justice Department memoranda. They clearly indict a Washington that would stop at almost nothing to shut Dr. King up.
So yeah, at least as much as the next guy I’m prepared to understand that government isn’t always our friend. Still, seeing the new Doug Liman film Fair Game last night was a chilling reminder of the power of the presidential agenda, and the cruelty with which those in the ruling class can crush the truth in the name of…well, in the name of whatever they’ve got cooking.
And that icy feeling, in and of itself, was a wonderful reminder of the power of film. Because it doesn’t matter that you may well know quite a bit of the story (the outing of a loyal CIA agent by the hand of her own government), or that some of the detail may seem mundane (the producers hew to the facts, and we get scenes like intelligence officers arguing over the intended use of aluminum tubing), when you see the story of Joe and Valerie Plame Wilson played out for the camera it resonates.
This is why a totalitarian regime rounds up the artists first, of course. They help us see what’s right in front of us.
In this case, Fair Game made my blood boil at facts already well in evidence: an administration wants to go to war, it makes a case for that by basically manufacturing evidence, it’s caught by surprise when someone points out the proof is questionable. Then, of course, it systematically destroys that man’s entire life in order to maintain their fiction.
Even the film’s title shows how completely antagonistic this government of, by, and for the people can be. I acknowledge the American era of right-or-wrong has long given way to a lawyerly gray area of bent ideals, plausible deniability, and frame-the-debate behavior. And yet, when you hear that Karl Rove tells Chris Matthews that the treasonous action of publicizing Plame’s undercover status is fair game, it’s particularly unsettling. Not simply because they’re supposed to be on the same team, but because the definition of “fair” has gone Orwell without us even noticing. Rove actually means its opposite: that the White House will do anything and everything to protect their position, regardless of the truth. You may know that, but seeing top-of-their craft actors playing it out for you may help you find a new wellspring of rage.
And that’s a good thing.
At one point in the film Sean Penn, who plays Joe Wilson, refers to obliteration of his wife’s civil service career as “a shot across the bow,” a warning to others as to the consequences of telling the truth when the agenda is something else entirely. Fair Game strikes me as a shot across the bow as well, a warning to citizens that we need to pay closer attention to what actions truly constitute patriotic behavior in this complex country or risk having the White House Press Secretary force-feed us definitions selected for Washington’s own purposes.
Liman’s film is grown up, an increasing rarity in the CGI world of Hollywood, but more importantly, it reminds us the government is grown up too–and it plays hardball.