'Fair Game' is a revealing story

It has been more than seven years since Ambassador Joe Wilson sat down and wrote what would be a fateful op-ed piece to the New York Times.

That article summarized his CIA-sponsored trip to Niger, Africa, to assess whether Iraq had purchased a sizable quantity of "yellow cake," a material used in the development of uranium and thus nuclear weapons. Wilson, taking issue with the George W. Bush administration, argued that he found no evidence that the yellow cake purchase had ever taken place.

Wilson had watched Bush's State of the Union address to the nation, wherein Bush offered up what would be referred to as "16 words" claiming that, according to British intelligence, Saddam Hussein had in fact made the yellowcake purchase. The administration had begun to assert with increasing certainty that Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, and the smoking gun evidence of yellow cake and aluminum tubes, intercepted in England, would soon become a mushroom cloud. Unless something was done.

Meanwhile, Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, a highly effective, covert operative for the CIA had been placed in charge of assessing Iraq's nuclear weapons program. With contacts from Kuala Lumpur to Egypt, she began gathering intelligence — information that would frame her evaluation of how far the Iraqi scientists were in their weapons program.

That's the backstory for the film, "Fair Game." Though the outcome became front-page news at the time, the story still makes for a gripping narrative as we see two people, Plame (Naomi Watts) and Wilson (Sean Penn), who have served their nation for decades, become pulled into the Bush administration's revisionist agenda, one that superseded the data, an agenda that was perpetrated by the Office of the Vice President, more specifically Scooter Libby (David Andrews).

When Wilson wrote his op-ed piece, he placed himself, and most especially Plame, in the political crosshairs. Libby, acting on behalf of Vice President Dick Cheney, was intent on constructing a reality far different from that of the intelligence community and was fully prepared to sacrifice Plame's career in order to discredit her husband and, thus, further the administration's conclusions. Once her name was leaked to the press, her effectiveness in the CIA was ended.

What recommends this film, beyond its revealing story, is the superb portrayals by Penn and Watts. They are consummate actors and completely inhabit their characters. Penn is convincing in his role as the retired ambassador Wilson, often sententious but never to the point of seeming blind to his wife's personal crisis. Watts is extraordinary: intense and steely, clearly effective, while conveying Plame's anger and desperation when she fully realizes that the career she loved and had worked at for more than 16 years must be terminated.

As it turns out, the Wilsons also are parents, with twins, and it soon becomes clear that the strain of events comes close to wrecking their marriage, a situation that adds an interesting dimension to what is a truly engaging film.

127 Hours

"127 Hours" opens on an early April morning, 2003, well before sunlight. Aaron Ralston (James Franco), a 27-year-old engineer, packs light gear in a daypack intending to spend the day in the Blue John Canyon area, exploring some of Utah's most breathtaking country. He drives to a trailhead, of sorts, and heads off on his mountain bike, pushing hard, exhilarated by the day and the breadth of the scenery and the cerulean sky overhead. Leaving the bike chained to a tree, he continues on foot, wearing only his pack containing a bottle of water, a little food, climbing rope, straps and carabiners. He meets two young women, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn). They spend time swimming in a stunningly beautiful, aqua-blue underground pool before Aaron continues, again alone.

He is experienced, familiar with the terrain, and fearless as he runs and jumps across open crevices and down cinnamon colored arroyos.

While traversing a benign-looking crevice, he loses his footing and slides down a sheer wall with a sizable boulder behind him. He lands hard, as does the rock, which wedges his right arm tight against the side of the crevice. In a heartbeat, his circumstances change. What was a carefree, insouciant day is suddenly transformed into an existential crisis. He's in real trouble.

What happens next is chronicled in Ralston's book, "The Rock and the Hard Place," telling about his 127-hour ordeal, trapped with no good way to free himself. His only tool is a passable multipurpose utility tool, his climbing gear, and one bottle of water. He had left the oranges and Gatorade in his car.

So this is the set up: one actor, Franco, taking measure of his situation, and hoping that there is a quick solution for he knows that his arm is losing circulation rapidly.

It is an improbable, stripped-down story for a 1-hour, 33-minute film, the equivalent of a container movie wherein the characters are trapped in a confined space (an airplane, a deep cave, a panic room in a house) and must deal with the impending circumstances while they try and survive. What is astonishing is that there is no antagonist other than the sandy bolder and, of course, time. Hours pass, and soon Ralston will run out of water and food and he will die, while hallucinating about family and his girlfriend, Rana (Clemence Poesy).

He knows that he has cavalierly taken the day trip without telling anyone where he is going. His supplies are meager. No cell phone, no emergency equipment. He is completely alone and without hope.

Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting," "Slumdog Millionaire," "28 Days"), working with his two cinematographers, Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle, manages to create a compelling film, one that is intense and in its own way grimly surprising. As well, Franco delivers a wonderful portrayal of Ralston as he struggles, courageously, to survive.

At face value, the movie does not beckon. But it is gripping from first to last.

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