Two modern thrillers, one based on a true story, the other on a short story by Philip K. Dick, both in cinemas, both sold on the prospect of an attractive man and lady in trouble – which, having just watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur on one of the classic movie channels, made in 1942 and in which Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane got in trouble, was ever thus.
In Fair Game, a much-used title although in this case it means something, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn play the poster couple of liberal dinner-party optimists everywhere, Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson – she the CIA agent exposed by backroom staff at the Bush White House when he, a retired diplomat, went public with inconvenient truths during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In The Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon plays a fictional Democrat Senatorial candidate and possible future president who finds himself on the wrong side of the curtain in a parallel present where our destinies are controlled by angels in trilbies, and Emily Blunt is the expat English dancer who threatens to reroute his destiny by kissing him in the bathroom of the Waldorf Hotel. In both movies, which are being filed together here because I’ve just seen them both, the man and the lady come up against dark forces more powerful than themselves and their relationships are jeopardised as a result. In the former, they sit around at laptops and in parks, getting cross. In the latter, they do a lot of running.
I found stuff to enjoy in both, but preferred Fair Game, as I am its target audience: someone who despised the Bush administration and everything it stood for, and still consider what happened after 9/11 to be one of the greatest political and ideological crimes of my lifetime. (Bearing in mind I wasn’t alive when the Holocaust happened.) I followed the story with great interest at the time, and remember my satisfaction when Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff “Scooter” Libby was jailed in 2007 for obstruction, perjury and false statements – but not for the leak itself. (Bush had his sentence commuted on the way out of office.) You might say it’s old news, and that dramatising events of eight years ago is a fool’s errand, especially when the situation in Iraq has hardly concluded. Me? I’m happy every time we are reminded that the invasion of Iraq was founded upon lies. This deadly confidence trick is the real legacy of Bush and Blair and should never be forgotten. That said, I think director Doug Liman, and screenwriters Jez and John Butterworth, have done a smart job of bringing an essentially actionless story to the screen as a thriller. There is no real jeopardy invested in the outcome – Iraq was invaded, WMD were not found, Libby went to jail, Plame and Wilson wrote books, exonerated – but the film still rattles along.
Peter Bradshaw, a critic I admire in print and like in real life, gave Fair Game a right old kicking in his Guardian review, which you can read here. He took against it for sound enough geo-political reasons, but I disagree that it’s ripely acted, smug and “ridiculous”. He’s entitled to this opinion, although a one-star review struck me as slightly hysterical. I found it well acted and at worse, self-righteous. Sure enough, Penn plays Wilson as a slightly older, fatter version of his own good self but he’s no hero and a bit of a boorish sociopath; Watts not only looks like Plame (her good looks and blonde hair – eek! – worked against her at the hands of a venal, misogynist media), she dares to play her as vulnerable and powerless. She is not a hero either, certainly not outside of her dangerous field work, she is a victim of forces bigger than the CIA. She is still sympathetic.
Hey, maybe I am a sucker for liberal porn, and way too interested in Beltway politics and the intricacies of the US media and military-political context, having read too many books about the Bush government and read too many New Yorker articles about the same, but I can’t help it. I thoroughly enjoyed Fair Game.
Meanwhile, I was up for The Adjustment Bureau, which is essentially apolitical, but let down by it. It is the directorial debut of George Nolfi, one of the writers of The Bourne Ultimatum, which presumably helped him get Matt Damon for the lead. It’s based on The Adjustment Team, a 1954 short story by Philip K Dick, which I’ve not read, but I know has been very freely adapted. Well, it’s a short story, with the usual high sci-fi concept, so it had to be, really. I am no Dick conoisseur. I have only read The Man In The High Castle (1962) – that’s it. But I have seen all his films! This one seems ultimately to have failed. It’s a nice set-up, with Damon’s political rise and his chance meetings with Blunt’s dancer well staged in contemporary New York. The netherworld policed by Roger Sterling’s trilby men (alright, John Slattery, but he seems to have been cast in his actual Mad Men clothes) is similarly well realised. But once we’ve had this alternative reality explained to us – and, at one point, explained to us as if perhaps we might be idiots, by the character played by Terence Stamp because Englishmen are by nature more evil than American ones to Americans – there’s nowhere for it to go, and we’re left with our two heroes running. Just as we are in most sci-fi thrillers. The more faceless or omniscient our imagined foes, the faster we run, right?
I’m not going into any more plot, clearly, but it’s a shame that The Adjustment Bureau didn’t pay us back for our investment. I love Matt Damon, he really is one of my favourite modern leading men, and Blunt has a natural, unforced, approachable charm onscreen, but if it wasn’t for their chemistry, there would be nothing here.
That said, Saboteur started much better than it ended, too. And that had the look of a 1942 film on its side. Which is one I prefer to the look of a 2011 film, if I’m honest.
Incidentally, can someone explain to me why Jennifer Ehle, most famously Elizabeth Bennett in the BBC’s classic Andrew Davies Pride & Prejudice and star of The Camomile Lawn, plays a bartender in The Adjustment Bureau: a part with two lines, both of which are things a bartender might say (“What can I get you gentlemen?” that sort of line), and no further significance to the plot. This is a criminal waste of a fine actress who, although American born, trained over here and found fame here. Did she go back to Hollywood for this?