Joe Wilson: great American, or greatest American? That’s the type of tough question asked by Doug Liman’s Fair Game, a dramatization of the Bush administration’s outing of C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame during the lead-up to the Iraq War.
There was a lot of unhappy chatter in the film blogosphere when the Cannes lineup was announced and it turned out that the only American film in competition was directed by the auteur responsible for Jumper. But, as it turns out, Fair Game actually isn’t that bad. It’s not especially good either, but it’s certainly no worse than a lot of what else is here this year.
Fair Game is, essentially, porn for smug liberals, and I can’t deny falling pretty squarely into that target demographic. So, for a while, Liman’s conventionally entertaining take on the material had me somewhat on board. It opens with a docu-drama montage of news clips about 9/11 and the beginnings of the war on terror before moving on to former ambassador Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger to investigate reports of a sale of yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Everyone should know the details by this point: the yellowcake story turned out to be an obvious hoax, which the administration knew but lied—or, to be more charitable, ignored inconvenient facts—about; Wilson published an editorial in The New York Times saying as much; the administration, trying to change the story, illegally leaked to columnist Robert Novak that Wilson’s wife Valerie (Naomi Watts) was an undercover operative. Fair Game traces this narrative, filtering it largely through how it personally affected Wilson and Plame (though amusingly unctuous versions of both Karl Rove and eventual fall-guy Scooter Libby both appear).
This is hardly essential filmmaking (yes, Bush lied; can we please move on now?), but it is slick and reasonably engaging. Or it is until Wilson unleashes his PR war against the White House, at which point Penn, superb in quieter moments—between this and Milk, it looks like he might finally be learning to loosen up again—is reduced to speechifying about freedom and democracy while Watts gets stuck exploring different variations of “stoic.” Ultimately, Liman is primarily concerned with presenting Wilson and Plame as noble victims of the evil Republican machine. I can’t help but agree in general (it’s obviously a lot more complicated than that), but all the one-note righteous indignation isn’t especially compelling. So, despite all the protestations, it turns out that Liman isn’t at all out of place in this year’s competition; Fair Game is just mediocre enough to fit right in.
Ken Loach’s Route Irish is also a political thriller, though one in a very different mood than Fair Game. Where Liman’s film is slick and self-congratulating, Loach’s is dark, grim, and angry. A bitter attack on the lawless contractors sent to Iraq and given free reign to kill without consequences, Route Irish is the most passionate Loach has seemed in some time—which does not, alas, necessarily mean it’s very good.
As the film begins, Frankie (John Bishop), a contractor in Iraq, has been killed in a roadside bomb attack. His best friend, Fergus (Mark Womack), who at one point was also a contractor, refuses to accept the official story that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He finds a cellphone that Frankie had hidden containing footage of contractors killing a group of innocent civilians, a discovery that kicks off an investigation spanning from Frankie to a psychopathic contractor (Trevor Williams), all the way up (naturally) to the heads of the corporation. When he realizes that Frankie was murdered to keep him quiet about the killings, he sets out to avenge his friend.
Route Irish is a thriller, but there aren’t many surprises to be had. Anyone with any experience with political conspiracy movies will know almost immediately who will turn out to be the bad guy, so all the scenes of investigation and clumsy exposition—and there are a bunch—are just marking time until Fergus starts to get his revenge. At that point, Route Irish actually gets a lot more interesting, because it becomes clear that Fergus is not meant to be a sympathetic character, but a dangerous, increasingly deranged one. This is powerful in theory, if not always in execution. Part of the problem is that Loach seems to have cast his lead actor based solely on how loud he could yell. Nearly every scene climaxes with Fergus screaming at the top of his lungs about something or other, suggesting not only that he has been deeply damaged by the effects of war, but also that his mother clearly never taught him to use his words. At a certain point, the anger simply becomes oppressive, and the ideas Loach is expressing aren’t fresh enough to make the slog worthwhile. Pretty much everyone already knows about the Iraqi contractors’ crimes, and just shouting about them isn’t exactly helpful.
One of the nice things about the otherwise exhausting festival experience is that all it takes is one great film to wash the taste of mediocrity out of your mouth. After Fair Game and Route Irish, I was more than ready for Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (he has asked that the press simply call him “Joe”), to bring some weird magic to the fest. Well, wish granted—and then some. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is not just the best film of the festival; it makes everything else in competition—even the good stuff—look slapdash, lazy, hollow. The final installment of Weerasethakul’s multi-media art project Primitive, Uncle Boonmee marries the mysticism of previous films like Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century to a newfound political and intellectual engagement and an evolving aesthetic that draws as much from the avant-garde as from narrative filmmaking.
There’s not much use in explaining Uncle Boonmee’s plot, since Weersethakul is operating on a level beyond straightforward narrative. It traces the final days of the titular character (Thanapat Saisaymar), who is dying of kidney failure and who has asked his loved ones—sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee)—to stay with him until he passes. Over these days, mysterious things start happening. The ghost of Boonmee’s wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) appears, as does his long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who has been transformed into one of the frightening “monkey ghosts” who roam the forest. Parables and narrative digressions depict several of Boonmee’s possible past lives. Ultimately, Boonmee takes his family to the cave in which his first life began, where he hopes to die in peace.
The two previous filmic pieces of Weerasethakul’s Primitive project, the video work Phantoms of Nabua and the short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, are not essential to understanding Uncle Boonmee, but they do help clarify the feature’s intentions. Phantoms of Nabua is an experimental, non-narrative work that uses pure light, projections, and performance to explore representations of violence. (You can view it here.) A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is about Weerasethakul’s search to find a house suitable to film in for Uncle Boonmee, and it too uses experimental techniques (recitation, repetition, pure visual metaphor) to explore art and storytelling’s role in preserving and unearthing history. All three works are set in the Thai town of Nabua, which was subject to brutal military rule for several decades when the government sought to control the threat of communism. Many villagers were executed or forcefully removed from their homes, and Weersethakul’s project in Primitive is, to some extent, an attempt to deal with the town’s dark past. Boonmee comments that his sickness is karmic retribution for his role in killing communists, and one stunning sequence late in the film uses photographs to propose art and cinema as powerful forces of historical intervention.
But Uncle Boonmee is hardly a tract. It is a mysterious, haunting, and breathtakingly beautiful film about, variously, the relationship between man and nature, history, communal experience and memory, decay, and transcendence. All these factors relate to and deepen the film’s political dimensions, but they also form a broader, mythic expression of human experience. Weerasethakul seems genuinely to believe in things like spirits and reincarnation, beliefs that prompt an exploration for startling new ways to explore the metaphysical through film. He is one of just a handful of contemporary directors actively seeking to expand the boundaries of what cinema is and can do. Uncle Boonmee, though it will take more viewings and consideration to fully understand, could very well be his masterpiece.