Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Political science: Fair Game and Gerrymandering

I don't like talking about politics nearly as much as I did back when I was in high school and knew a heck of a lot less. In fact, I get fairly uncomfortable when I see politically-oriented movies in a group; here in the so-called People's Republic of Cambridge, both a lot more passion and a somewhat more left-leaning philosophy are expected.

Not that I'm thinking either Fair Game, which targets the George W. Bush administration directly, or Gerrymandering, which is fairly balanced but seems a little inclined to make Tom DeLay the villain of one segment, is cheering for the wrong side. Still, my reaction to seeing both the same day is that I'd be much more likely to vote Republican on occasion if they didn't get caught doing so much of this shit.

And that's about all I'm going to say about that. After all, saying more isn't going to gain me readers and the politics that goes along with these is fairly depressing.

Fair Game

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 November 2010 at AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run)

Fair Game is a good movie that is going to have a target on its back for all the wrong reasons. If the story were relocated and names were changed, both its issues and its strengths would be thrown into sharper relief (along with how they are inextricably tied to each other), but it's contemporary enough and the current state of political discourse is contentious enough that folks may overlook that it tells the story it aims to tell rather well, with a couple of excellent performances.

We start in fall of 2001, with CIA operative and analyst Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) using her cover as a venture capitalist to help track potential sales of atomic materials in the middle east. Intelligence isn't quite the family business, but word of Iraq potentially putting together materials for a weapon of mass destruction leads to her and the Agency recruiting her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), to use his contacts to find out if yellowcake uranium is being smuggled out of Niger. The investigation strongly suggests that it is not the case, so Joe, Valerie, and her colleages are shocked when the President announces the exact opposite during the State of the Union address. Joe writes an article in the New York Times describing his trip to Niger, and in seeming retaliation, Administration officials leak that Plame is a field agent to the press - which not only endangers ongoing operations, but multiplies to the strain on their marriage that Joe's article had created.

(Please don't send me mail about that description; it is the plot of the movie, not a definitive history of this affair. Similarly, what follows is opinions on how the movie works as drama. I'm sure most reading this far understand that, but I really don't want my inbox filled by people who think they know what sort of ax I have to grind.)

The first half of the film is an engrossing look at the process of gathering intelligence. Director Doug Liman has made a career of directing and producing spy movies that, while occasionally more grounded than the James Bond franchise, are still escapist fantasies. Here, he places the focus on an intelligence professional's primary job, procuring information and trying to form a larger picture from it. The details are interesting, giving us perspectives on "human intelligence" rarely seen in the movies, where even though the agents and assets are often quite smart, they are far from superhuman, and seeing the different sources it comes from, as well as the demands placed upon these people from the bureaucracy.

Full review at EFC.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 November 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

Disdain for the technique of redrawing voting districts in strange ways for political gain ("gerrymandering") doesn't unite America's political parties, so much as alternate between them as convenient. Because of this, Gerrymandering-the-movie actually has a better chance than many politically-oriented documentaries to interest a large audience. How much new information that audience will receive is the question.

The term "gerrymandering" comes from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry (whose name, as footage of President Kennedy and some Massachusetts schoolkids remind us, was pronounced with a hard G), famously called out in an 1812 Boston Gazette editorial cartoon for creating a salamander-shaped district to benefit his Democratic Republican party. It pervades American politics, as districts at the national, state, and local level are redrawn every ten years, with very few safeties to prevent those in power from influencing the process to their own benefit. As we see in an opening montage, Presidents from both parties (from Kennedy to Reagan to Obama) have decried the process, although few politicians actually do anything about it, as it may benefit them the next time around.

Filmmaker Jeff Reichert frames his movie in part by following a group attempting to do something about it, most notably Kathay Feng of Common Cause. In 2008, they put an initiative on the California ballot that would place the job of redistricting in the hands of an independent commission, and though they have the support of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, most career politicians oppose them. The film also covers the Texas state legislature's walkout in 2006, where Democratic representatives left the state in an effort to kill a Republican attempt to redistrict the state to its own advantage. They aren't necessarily the easiest things to make into a movie - the Texas segments are all done after the fact, and the last four weeks of a ballot initiative mainly consist of working phones and making rote speeches.

Full review at EFC.

1 comment:

elgart said...

I was surprised at the level of cinematic perfection this film had...