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05.22.10

Cannes' New Political Thrillers

Good politics can’t mask melodramatic plots in two new movies at Cannes—one on the Valerie Plame scandal, and another on contractors in Iraq. Richard Porton on why it’s best to leave politics to the documentarians.

Since Ken Loach is one of the most amiable and unpretentious directors I’ve ever met, I desperately wanted to like his new film Route Irish, which was a last-minute addition to this year’s Cannes competition. A soft-spoken, Oxford-educated radical, his groundbreaking social realist films, particularly Cathy Come Home (1966) and Kes (1970), are justly considered classics.

Yet the problem with Route Irish, as well as with another competition entry, Doug Liman’s Fair Game, is that good political intentions cannot redeem lackluster filmmaking.

Both Route Irish and Fair Game can be loosely termed political thrillers—and this is the root of the problem. Politically committed directors who want to reach a large public often try what might be termed a bait-and-switch strategy. They attempt to rope apolitical audience members in with genre formulas and then zing them with uplifting or consciousness-raising messages.

The success of independent documentaries proves that political issues need not be sugarcoated with spurious “human interest” to appeal to a wide public.

In the case of Route Irish, one of the bleakest representatives of a very bleak sub-genre—Iraq War films—Loach’s attempt to make what is essentially a leftist action film yields dispiritingly schizoid results. Focusing on the anguish of Fergus (Mark Womack), an employee of a private contracting firm in Iraq who gradually realizes that the company is lying about the death of his buddy Frankie (John Bishop) on “Route Irish” (supposedly the most dangerous thoroughfare in Iraq), the film features almost as many explosions as Die Hard and about as many red herrings and investigations of cell phone files as any of the Bourne films.

By the end of the movie, Liverpool, where most of the action takes place, is almost indistinguishable from Baghdad. Loach and his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty obviously believe this convergence of East and West represents the ways in which corporate interests at home have succeeded in privatizing carnage and contributing to the brutality of the Iraq War, particularly the daily murder of civilians. As Laverty remarked, “Nobody is interested in counting how many Iraqi civilians have been killed or injured by private contractors … Blackwater’s massacre of 17 civilians in the middle of Baghdad was the most notorious incident, but there were many more that went unreported.”

Despite Loach and Laverty’s undeniable commitment to this issue, their film goes astray as Fergus becomes increasingly unhinged. In the most viscerally shocking sequence, he even engages in water boarding as he tries to extract information from one of the contractor’s henchmen. While the point is surely that war dehumanizes even essentially good people, the story arc resembles a traditional revenge wish-fulfillment fantasy.

Route Irish is at least propelled by salutary anger and a coherent point of view. The muddled Fair Game, on the other hand, is hobbled by Hollywood’s frequent insistence on leavening political themes with “human interest” stories. Liman’s tribute to former CIA operative Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), former U.S. ambassador to Gabon, can’t decide if it’s a spy thriller, a marital drama, or a hymn to liberal patriotic verities obliterated by the cynicism of Bush, Rove, and Cheney.

There’s no doubt that the “outing” of Plame as an operative by forces within the Bush administration as revenge for her husband’s conclusion that “the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat,” has the makings of a fascinating film. Yet Fair Game drains this episode of any tension through a preoccupation with Plame and Wilson’s personal traumas; as the final credits roll, they’ve virtually been canonized as secular saints. And for those not already familiar with the details of the case, the narrative that unfolds will seem murky indeed; the role of key figures in the scandal such as Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Novak remains unexplored.

Of course, it shouldn’t be assumed that Hollywood movies are inherently incapable of tackling hard-nosed political quandaries, or that based-on-fact docudramas are doomed to irrelevance. Alan Pakula’s All the President's Men, for example, was solid commercial entertainment that astutely avoided the pitfalls that mar Fair Game.

In recent years, however, the success of independent documentaries proves that political issues need not be sugarcoated with spurious “human interest” to appeal to a wide public. Perhaps most excitingly, documentary filmmakers, whether famous polemicists such as Michael Moore or lesser-known, but in some respects even more innovative figures such as Thom Andersen ( Los Angeles Plays Itself) and Adam Curtis ( The Power of Nightmares), are helping to build a rich tradition of “documentary essays”—films that combine serious historical inquiry with idiosyncratic approaches to non-fiction.

At this year’s Cannes, Andrei Ujica’s astonishing documentary The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu made most of the fiction films on display seem trite and boring. The concept of Ujica’s film is as simple as the execution is brilliant. Without resorting to voice-over or interviews, the film assembles a wealth of archival footage chronicling the rise and fall of Ceausescu, Romania’s dictatorial president from 1974 to 1989. With an occasionally sardonic use of music and sound effects, the images, most of which Ujica informs us were commissioned by Ceausescu’s “ own propaganda machine,” demystify his regime’s curious meld of banality and cruelty by the sheer weight of their cumulative power.

When some cynic feels the need to disparage political cinema, Sam Goldwyn’s old quip—“If you want to send a message, call Western Union,”—is invariably dredged up. Such flippancy ignores the fact that, as Ujica’s documentary demonstrates, politics and history can come chillingly alive on screen in the hands of a master. Route Irish and Fair Game fail by trying to appeal to too many cinematic constituencies and thereby pleasing no one. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu succeeds brilliantly by not trying to please anyone.

Xtra Insight:
Newsweek: Valerie Plame Movie Ripped from the Headlines
TPM: Watch the Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame Trailer

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Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste magazine in New York and has written on film for Cinema Scope, In These Times, and Moving Image Source. His anthology, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press), was published in 2009.