By Mike Wilmington

MW on Movies: Due Date, Megamind and Fair Game

Due Date (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.; Todd Phillips, 2010

An odd-couple road trip comedy about a wired-tight middle class architect (Robert Downey, Jr.) and an effete but slobby Hollywood-bound wanna be actor (Zach Galifianakis), thrown together on an impromptu cross-country drive from Atlanta to L.A., Due Date isn’t up to the best of its most obvious antecedents, Midnight Run and Planes, Trains and Automobiles — even if it compares favorably enough to Phillips‘ own 2000 comedy crash-out Road Trip.

I laughed at this movie, though not nearly as much as I did at Phillips’ last show, the stratospheric comedy hit The Hangover. And I thought Due Date had a tendency to try for too many Farrellyisms, to get too big and car-crashy explosive too soon, and to waste the virtuosic Downey and overstretch the newly omnipresent Galifianakis. It’s not bad, but too frequently, it’s not too good.

Due Date actually lost me somewhere around the Mexican border at Ciudad Juarez, which Downey‘s Peter Highman and Galifianakis’ Ethan Tremblay accidentally cross, falling into the hands of some descendants of Alfonso Bedoya who have gotten jobs as border guards. But the trip actually started to go south even earlier, when Ethan fell asleep at the wheel and flipped his rental car off a bridge on its roof somewhere west of Atlanta. Or maybe it was the over-cozy scene when Peter and Ethan curled up together on the front seat (Why? Nobody wants the back seat?) for a nighttime snooze, and Ethan started jacking off (his substitute for a sleeping pill) and his French bulldog with a sun collar started masturbating too. (Could Rin Tin Tin do that?)

It never lost me completely, and the audience around me were laughing regularly enough. Put it in the middle. “Due Date” at least has some character comedy and personality gags, and it also has Downey, which puts it ahead of most recent comedies.

Downey is a master at both humor and drama and their various hybrids, even when the script won’t back him up (as it often won’t here). With his haggard soulful eyes balancing his glib run-of-the mouth exasperation, he mostly nails Peter Highman, an expectant father summoned back to L. A. to witness the birth of his baby. (“High man.” Downey. Get it? Michelle Monaghan is the mom, another inducement).

Things are hectic and about to get worse. Just outside the airport entrance doors, Peter bumps into Galifianakis’ Ethan (“Tremblay” is his stage name) when Ethan’s car clips Peter’s Town Car and he loses a door. That’s a pretty strenuous joke for a meet-cute gag, and it exhibits Due Date‘s worst vice almost immediately: a tendency to crank up the mayhem too fast, and to go over the top too soon.

In the mix-up, the two future co-stars and road buddies scramble suitcases, and later Ethan gets them both thrown off the plane, when he sits behind Peter and starts babbling about terrorists and bombs, refusing to shut up despite frantic shushing form Peter. (A rather odd lapse in this post-9/11 era, though using the word “lapse” for one of Ethan’s endless screw-up’s is a misnomer. He proves to be a walking hoodoo catastrophe magnet.)

Peter, slowly losing his temper, has now also lost his luggage, his wallet, all his I.D. and credit cards and everything but a cute huggie-toy rescued for him by thoughtful Ethan, and they’ve also been both plastered on the “no-fly” security list. But he foolishly acquiesces when Ethan offers to give him a ride to L. A. in a rental car, and to pay all his expenses. Off go the boy-os, toward what mad adventures we can only wildly surmise — accompanied by that friendly French bulldog, Ethan’s medical marijuana (for glaucoma, he keeps insisting ) and a coffee can containing the ashes of Ethan’s recently cremated father. (I give you two guesses what the pay-off gag for that one is.)

Well, I don’t want to telegraph any more jokes. (The movie does them better.)


… But Juliette Lewis is around to help Ethan replenish his cannabis stash, there’s a waffle shop where we discover, naturally, that Ethan is allergic to waffles, Jamie Foxx turns up as Peter’s best friend Darryl, to validate the movie’s “I’m hip” credentials and lend them fresh wheels, and Danny McBride does a nifty funny-mean turn as a wheelchair vet working at Western Union who proves astonishingly unhelpful when Peter phones wife Sarah to wire some cash and Ethan pulls another boner (not an innuendo) by asking them to transfer the dough to the account of his nom d’etage Tremblay instead of his real moniker Ethan Slade. Then there’s a frantic police car theft and a breathless smoking engine race to L. A., where another door gets torn off (which must be a brilliant post-semiotic sign-and-meaning symbol for double castration). That last mess-up, seems to be amazingly ignored or forgiven by the LAPD and our generous neighbors south of the border, who are possibly too busy polishing their stinking badges and directing lost, wandering Minutemen somehow back to Arizona.


Downey is one of my favorite thesps, and proof of his histrionic skills comes here conclusively when Ethan breaks out his weed, and Peter insists he‘s never touched the stuff. Wow! What an actor! Downey, like Jack Nicholson, has the ability to do brilliant slow burns and blowups, great rants and rattle-offs, and to immerse himself heavily in any movies’ fantasies, however demented. Even though I thought Peter succumbed to Ethan’s bizarre charms a bit early (the script‘s fault), he uses all that formidable acting hardware to make Peter a near-perfect neurotic straight man — in several senses of the word.

If only Galifianakis could match him. He was a terrific needy slob in The Hangover, and he can grab those laughs, but I couldn’t really figure Ethan out. Obviously he’s in charge of homoerotic humor, full-blown prissy nerdiness, Hollywood delusions, class dissonance and dumb stunts here. But Galifianakis keeps shuttling between slob and effete modes, and he often seems to be dreaming up and doing stuff just to annoy us, drive Peter crazy and mollify his director. (Check out John Candy in Trains for the way to shape and pitch this kind of role.)

There’s also an over-reliance on Galifianakis” stomach for extreme sight gags, though I realize they may be trying to establish his tummy as his signature, like Jimmy Durante‘s nose, Betty Grable’s legs or Jennifer Love Hewitt’s boobs. But it doesn’t quite play. Galifianakis can punch up the gags and go dopey-grungy with anyone. But, unlike John Candy’s grating but soft-hearted buttinsky in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, an underrated classic, Galifianakis doesn’t really give this role honest poignancy, which it needs. (How about one scene where Ethan talks about the pain of being a freak and an outsider, or reminisces about his dad in the coffee can, and Peter really hears him?)

Comedy sometimes needs the shadow of its opposite, anguish, to work right. But, even when Ethan rips off a dramatic dry-eyed crying jag for Peter in a men‘s room, or goes all emotional in the movie‘s teary big scene in the Grand Canyon (no, it doesn’t involve onanism), he doesn’t go over the edge. I thought he could also use a few moments of early Gene Wilder-level hysteria, something to throw things even more off-kilter. But Galifianakis always seems too much in control of the role, too torn between slobbiness and flamboyance, a bit apart from his own nuttiness.

There are other good scenes. Lewis and McBride both shine in their showcase roles, and Jamie Foxx sure makes the movie look hipper, even if, as I wanted him to, he doesn’t sing Ray Charles‘ “Hit the Road Jack.“ But the script — by Phillips, Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, and Adam Sztykiel — could certainly cut Zach some more dramatic slack. This is the kind of show whose budget is so big that Ethan can crack a joke about how Two and a Half Men was the show that made him want to be an actor, and Phillips can actually bring on Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen for a capper. (“Charlie, Charlie You don’t understand….I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.”)

Phillips, who once made a documentary called Frat House, and who directed Will Ferrell, Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn in the Back to the Fraternity comedy Old School, has a bent for this kind of high-and-horny frat-boy humor. Maybe he’s the king of it — and it’s good to be the king (of something). But in Due Date, he’s up against our formidable memories of Candy and Steve Martin in Plains, Trains and of Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro in Midnight Run, not to mention Lemmon and Matthau (or Randall and Klugman) in The Odd Couple.

It’s not that his actors aren’t up to the challenge, or at least part of the challenge. But Due Date doesn’t have a sufficiently new take, heavy enough character insight, or wicked enough comic chops. It’s a little too much “Downey! Galifianakis! Together again for the first time,” or even “Downey’s back and Galifianakis has got him.” Merely introducing these guys to each other and spending a lot of money, or flipping cars off bridges, or going all Judd Apatow on us, isn’t enough. As they said in “Damn Yankees,” “You‘ve gotta have heart.” (Even if the way to that heart is though Galifianakis’ stomach.)

Due Date just goes too far, too fast, and is too automatic and undercooked on one end of its odd couple attack. But there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours. Saw 3D, for example. (Aaaargh!!!) Paranormal Activity 2, for another. (Errrrgh!!) Life as We Know It for a third. (Yeccccch!) By comparison, Phillips’ movie is like an old buddy who shows up, tells some good jokes, tells some groaners, farts a little, barfs the beer, doesn’t always flush the toilet, but is basically a good guy. (Just keep him away from your girlfriend.)

The movie, by the way, obviously as part of a conspiracy to change the country’s marijuana laws, treats the administering of Ethan’s glaucoma cure as a sort of epiphany. Look at Due Date’s release date and the California pot law vote! (“How does that tie in to your post-Obama Commie conspiracy? Incredibly obvious, isn’t it, Mandrake?”) But that’s okay with me too. The whole country may have to get stoned on something to survive the Republicans‘ latest hugely financed return from the dead, supposedly to rescue us from all the catastrophes they, like Ethan, caused in the first place. (Dracula has risen from the grave and his name is John Boehner.) It just goes to show that 260 plus million dollars can buy anything — even a Due Date or two.

Actually, to digress even further, and mess up this review even more: When I first heard of the tea party movement, (“Fluoride, Mandrake! Children‘s drinking water!) I didn’t really think it was a transparent sham set up by Dick Armey and others, and propagated by Fox News, mercifully released from their old dumb, useless, “Fair and Balanced” kick. (I can no longer stand idly by and watch Communist subversion, Communist indoctrination and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of out precious bodily fluids!”) No, I thought it was a genuine new grass roots movement to legalize ganja (tea in hipster argot, after all).

We’d probably all be better off it was. Due Date may not be another Midnight Run, but at least it’s funnier than the G. O. P., funnier than Michelle Bachman or Mitch McConnell, or that congressman who was prancing around in a German Nazi uniform. (Well, maybe not funnier than Mitch McConnell.) Less tragic too — even if unsuccessful tea-partier and so-called Witch of the East Christine O‘Donnell does want to put an end to Obama-care and masturbation. Even for French bulldogs? (“I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the act of physical love. Women sense my power, but I deny them my essence…”)

By the way, why didn’t Peter just take a train?


Megamind (Three Stars)

U.S.: Tom McGrath, 2010

You should have a pretty good time at Megamind, a DreamWorks 3D feature cartoon from director Tom McGrath (of the Madagascar movies), that satirizes superhero comics and, like Despicable Me, tells things from the villain‘s point of view.

Of course it’s a villain — initially a nasty little blue braniac bad scientist with a hatchet face and beady eyes, named Megamind and voiced by Will Ferrell — who has more strings to his bow than just villainy. Like the supercad in Despicable Me, Mega has his good side. And he even discovers, after finally vanquishing and apparently destroying his longtime superhero nemesis, Metroman (Brad Pitt), that he misses the Superguy and that villainy doesn’t mean much if you don’t have a hero to bash and maul and try to destroy every day or two.

After all, these two go back a long way, somewhat like Superman and Luthor (or The Prankster, or Mr. Mxyztplk), like Batman and the Joker (or the Penguin), like Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. And they share a kind of joint saga of super-parallelisms. Metroman, like Superman and Megamind, came to Earth in a spaceship from a distant planet, but Superman (or actually, Superboy) was raised by a good solid Midwestern farming family, the Kents — while Metroman grew up rich, and Megamind was raised by criminals, a clear case of environment determining degrees of supergood or superbad. No wonder they can’t stop fighting each other; they’re superbrothers under the skin. There, but for the grace of Dreamworks, go I…

Megamind (the name was borrowed from a Japanese comic strip) is also a villain who finds he has a heart, who grows to dig and woo heroine Tina Fey as intrepid TV reporter Roxanne Ritchie, and who also has a cute sidekick, Minion (David Cross), a whirling, whisking fish in a robot spaceman’s suit and head-bowl helmet. (Remember Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet? Remember Phil Tucker’s great God-awful mess of a movie, Robot Monster? Then you gotta love Minion). Finally, desperate for kicks, Mega decides he has to whip up another superhero, so he turns a nerdy cameraman named Hal into superdude Titan (played by Jonah Hill, cooking), to make life mean something again.

In other words, bad needs good and vice versa. Quite a heavy moral for a kid‘s picture — although, like many feature cartoons, this one isn’t just for kids. Or adults, whether superhero or supervillain-inclined. It’s for anyone who ever picked up a superhero comic, or wanted to, or will some day — or who looked up at the starry night and shook a fist at the whole black, blazing, endless super-universe and cried “Kryptonite be damned! I‘ll fight for truth and justice and the American way, even if I can’t raise ten million dollars for TV campaign attack ads!”

One of the things about comic superheroes that makes them work so well, is that they’re not always super. The classic superguys almost all had secret identities, often seemingly unsuper humans who got pushed around, or were “mild-mannered,” like Clark Kent, or were vulnerable kids themselves like troubled Peter Parker (Spider-Man) or zippy Billy Batson (Captain Marvel).


Metroman has no secret identity I could see and neither does Megamind. Mostly, they’re just non-schizo, straight-up super people. But Titan (or Tighten, if you want to believe imdb) starts out as nerdy Hal the sexless cameraman with a crush on sexy Roxanne, and when he’s in a position to realize his fantasies, he goes psycho. So much for nerd fantasies. At the end of the movie though, everyone begins to have a secret identity of sorts and they start morphing into each other, in a series of clever surprise gags.


Of the actors, Tina Fey, Pitt, Hill and Cross all seem to match up perfectly — and Ben Stiller, J. K. Simmons and Justin Theroux are also around productively, and so is McGrath himself, who scorches up the soundtrack as an aristocrat named Lord Scott and a bewildered prison guard, whose prisoners keep changing shapes.

Actually, the only voice I sometimes had problems with was Will Ferrell, who’s been cast against type as Megamind instead of his trademark lecherous phonies and bewildered doofusses, and who could use a little more pizzazz and Vincent Price style sinister hamming at the start. But, to be fair, Gene Hackman wasn’t really right as mad inventor Lex Luthor, in the Donner-Lester Superman series. (It was the role Telly Savalas was born to play.) And yet now, for most movie fans of that era and afterwards, Hackman is Luthor. So by the same token Ferrell may be Megamind, just as Cross is Minion and Jonah Hill is Titan, or Tighten, or whatever.

What can you say? Megamind certainly won’t change your life, unless you’re a troubled super villain, or an exploited minion, or a psycho with a camera. But it’s a funny movie and also a visually spectacular one. (The settings look like Fritz Lang gone a little Chuck Jones). It uses 3D imaginatively, cracks some funny jokes (not too many, but enough), and ends with an avalanche of action. It isn’t as snazzy and creative as The Incredibles, but so what? It isn’t as snazzy and creative as La Dolce Vita either. And I’ll freely admit it isn’t as good as Despicable Me. But then, sauerkraut isn’t as good as chocolate cake, unless you like sauerkraut.


Fair Game (Three Stars)

U.S.; Doug Liman, 2010

The movies always do something well in every period, even the Eighties, and one of the things they do best right now is bio-dramas. (They’re also good at fantasy adventures, neo-noir thrillers and feature cartoons.) Fair Game, in which director Doug Liman dramatizes the Valerie Plame-Joe Wilson story, based on their separate memoirs, is a good example, even if it’s disappointing in several key ways.

It’s an almost formulaic political bio-drama, but the formula isn’t a bad one. Basically, this is a good-hearted, well-done show, crisply and knowledgably written, sympathetically directed and extremely well-acted — by Naomi Watts as Valerie, Sean Penn as Joe, and a strong supporting cast that includes Bruce McGill, Noah Emmerich, Anand Tiwari, Adam Lefebvre (as Karl Rove) and David Andrews as Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and, as themselves, George Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice. (Some of the names in the cast list are partly redacted and I hasten to add that almost none of the real-life stars would have had anything to do with this movie if they could help it, though it’s their best work.) As Cheney hit-man Scooter Libby, Andrews is so good that maybe Libby should hire Andrews to be him for a while, whenever he wants an impromptu vacation. (“Hey, Dave, thanks a lot. Leaving Friday for a couple of days hunting with Dick. The key is under the mat. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”)

But the Plame-Wilson-Libby-Rove affair is no laughing matter. It’s still a shocking story, and I‘m amazed that there are still people who can apologize for the Bush administration on this one, and also try to give them a pass on their preemptive pre-”nucular“ antics, and try to demonize Wilson and Plame, or call them “traitors.” (Maybe Wilson will be attacked all over again now, just because Sean Penn played him in a movie.)

The real-life Plame was a longtime C. I. A. operative, with a lot of agents in the field, including (this movie says, or dramatizes) some crucial ones in Iraq. Wilson was an ex-ambassador and adviser/consultant who had investigated for and briefed the U. S. government on the so-called “Yellowcake from Niger” rumor, and concluded it was almost certainly a crock. Wilson, a feisty guy, then sat through Bush’s tense speech recounting the road to doomsday and the “mushroom cloud” awaiting us all unless we did what he wanted us to: invade Iraq and uncover the supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction hidden under every sand dune, or secreted there, someplace, somewhere. Wilson became incensed and wrote a New York Times op-ed piece saying it was all a load of baloney, at least from his angle.

Truth has consequences, of course. What followed was the famous Robert Novak column, outing Valerie as a C. I. A. officer, ending her career, damaging her marriage and her and her husband’s lives and spewing heavy negative implications (many on that paragon of creative journalism, Fox News), mainly that Valerie pulled strings to get Joe the W. M. D. gig, and that they were a couple of rogue liberals anyway, and wasn’t she really just a secretary? (And Joe a soda jerk?) Karl Rove allegedly told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews Valerie was “fair` game,” a frightening thought in the era of sportsman/citizen Cheney.

That’ll show ‘em. Lousy little traitors. Creepy little Com-sumps. Lippy little pinheads. Mess with the best and die like the rest! Were phrases like that running through the hearts and minds of Scooter Libby (Andrews), Karl Rove (Lefebvre) and Dick Cheney (himself) as they contemplated the “disloyalty“ of the Wilson’s? We’ll never know. They’ll never tell. And remember to catch Karl, current frequent commentator on Fox News.

But somebody (Dick Armitage, he claims) leaked to Novak, and somebody decided that Novak should be leaked to, and soon both Valerie and Joe were twisting in the wind. The rest of the movie shows how they survived, and how the truth came out, thanks to Attorney General Ashcroft and a bulldog of a prosecutor named Patrick Fitzgerald.

By the way the WMD‘s are still missing. But I’ve heard unconfirmed reports from unnamed British spies and unidentified, unreliable journalistic sources that they were moved from the dunes of Iraq to Lebanon to somewhere in Antarctica, and are now probably hidden in the White House attic, next to the shredded U. S. Constitution, and an autographed copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, awaiting use in a full scale assault on the ladies’ gun club of Bent Barrel, Texas. We may be safe though. Nobody can figure out how they work.


The movie of Fair Game is oddly constructed. Written by the British team of Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, it skitters at first through fact and what may be fiction, then settles down for a long engrossing stretch as Wilson talks and the White House strikes back, and the couple face a vicious battering by the government and the friendly media (especially, of course, Fox). Then it takes a huge leap from an emotional father-daughter scene between Valerie and Sam Plame (played by Sam Shepard), to the end of the story, the convictions (two on perjury for Libby), to the credits and a shot of the real Valerie on the 2007 congressional witness stand.

In the process, the movie skips past almost all the legal battle and throws away our chance to see just a little more comeuppance for these guys — which I think was a mistake. (Was anything cut?)


Watts and Penn are both excellent. Both capture the professional savvy of the Wilson’s, and the drama of their disrupted patrician comfort zone and marital battles, as well as Valerie‘s accelerating unease and Joe‘s increasing anger. Watts never suggests an actress stepping into or out of a role; nor does she seem overdressed and over-styled for the part. (At the credits, we see the real life Valerie taking the oath and testifying to Congress, and she‘s just as blonde and glamorous as Watts.) Instead, the actress suggests, with great economy and a mastery of undercurrents and subtext, exactly the look and feel of a woman used to power and privilege, trying to do a hellishly difficult job while her world explodes around her.

As for Penn, he has Joe‘s brainy manner, quietly combative mood and wavy, gray-streaked hairdo, and a hint of much of what lies beneath it. It’s crucial for Penn to seem both stubborn and absolutely straight in this role, and he does, he is. This character is about as far as you can get from ebullient gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk (the role that won Penn his second Oscar): stern, unsmiling, a bit testy but knitted-together, and firmly part of the establishment –which is about to screw him and his wife.

There’s a tendency to review Penn’s politics and his past youthful surly public image more than his movies whenever another one comes out, which is also what sometimes happens to Penn’s usually Republican director (on Mystic River) and admirer Clint Eastwood — and which is even understandable here in a movie with a political subject, made mostly by liberals whose agenda is to expose a case of right-wing establishment perfidy. But that kind of judgment is unfair, unbalanced. From my observation, the actor isn’t like either Harvey or Joe or the grim, unforgiving guy in Mystic River. Maybe bits of him are like all three, but he can draw them out at will, use them, and assay almost every nuance possible in all of these guys, and more.

Penn’s politics are his own business. (So are Watts‘s.) But he is a consummate actor, a consummate pro, one of the best there ever was. Accept it, Penn-haters. Live with it. Or mess with the best and die like the rest.

Doug Liman, who also acts here as his own cinematographer, has directed one preposterous but sexy comedy thriller (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), one unlikely but engrossing political thriller (The Bourne Identity, from Robert Ludlum), and now this all-too-likely political bio-thriller/domestic drama. Of them all, Bourne works best as a movie, but I’m glad Fair Game was made. I just wanted more legal thrills, more comeuppance. It doesn’t come as much as it should in life, so the movies shouldn’t squander the opportunities to do honestly what they do best, to mess with the worst.

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6 Responses to “MW on Movies: Due Date, Megamind and Fair Game”

  1. Keil Shults says:

    I still want to see Fair Game (probably on DVD), but the trajectory of Liman’s career continues to baffle and disappoint me. Even The Bourne Identity, which I somewhat enjoy, pales in comparison to its two sequels. And Mr. and Mrs. Smith was just plain stupid. I can’t believe these were made by the same guy who delivered Swingers and Go. And it’s not just because they’re wildly different genres. While I’ve found David Gordon Green’s marked shift from Mallick-esque indie dramas to comedy outings like Pineapple Express and Eastbound & Down to be odd, I haven’t felt let down by it. And that’s because the work he’s doing is still good, regardless of the form it takes. Maybe these are the kinds of films Liman always wanted to make, but I never would have believed it after walking out of my first screening of Swingers back in ’96.

  2. Terry says:

    @Keil, You leaving out Liman’s last movie, Jumper, which is even more of a step down than Mr and Mrs Smith. While Fair Game may not be the great one was hoping for, it appears to be a step in the right direction.

  3. Keil Shults says:

    Damn, I forgot about that film. I never saw it, but I can only assume that it further validates the point I was making.

    But yes, Fair Game seems to be a more worthy enterprise than his last 2 or 3.

  4. Nick Julius says:

    O David Coimbra lembrou algo no Café TVCom: normalmente, o presidente dos EUA perde a eleição de meio-mandato. Não foi exclusivo do Obama.

  5. Stan Crock says:

    Doug Liman may have accurately portrayed the ups and down of the Plame-Wilson marital relationship, but he got most of the political stuff flat wrong–despite his claims of diligent fact-checking. Here is the real story:
    Comment Resize Text: Original Large XLarge ‘Fair Game’ Glamorizes Distortions and Perpetuates Myths
    Stan Crock

    Share | Fair Game opened in theaters across America over the weekend. Based on the memoirs of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame (played stunningly by Naomi Watts) and her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson (played well by Sean Penn), the movie perpetuates the conventional wisdom about the infamous Plame affair. It focuses on the consequences of the exposure of Plame in a column by Robert Novak. Both Wilson and Plame claimed they were the target of a Bush White House plot led by former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, to leak Plame’s CIA identity to retaliate against Wilson for an op-ed article he had written for the New York Times. The column disputed the famous sixteen words in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union about Iraqi attempts to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger to make nuclear weapons. Libby ultimately was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice as a result of a probe of the leak of Plame’s identity.
    The movie conforms to a pure and simple Hollywood story line complete with hero (Wilson), villain (Libby), and innocent, distressed damsel (Plame). That story line is gospel for the Left. A corollary story line is gospel for the Right: that Libby took the fall for Cheney.

    Both are wrong. The fundamental problem is that Hollywood’s narrative needs and political leanings often conflict with reality. Hollywood needs a straightforward story line. Washington is more complicated. The usual explanation for bad outcomes inside the Beltway is not evil or corruption but incompetence or poor judgment. And there are rarely heroes.

    Wilson, for example, is a misguided missile, not a courageous whistleblower, and Plame was hardly innocent collateral damage in a war of words. Whatever one thinks about the Iraq policy he helped formulate, Libby had nothing to do with the leak. A review of grand jury and trial transcripts shows he told both the grand jury and FBI that Cheney had told him about Plame’s CIA links, so he did not cover or take the fall for his former boss. But the conventional wisdom is deeply ingrained in the public psyche. In fact, when I bought Plame’s autobiography recently, the cashier at Borders called the White House behavior treasonous. That’s why it’s time to take a fresh look at the Plame affair and set the record straight.

    Joe Wilson had gone to Niger in 2002 at the request of the CIA after Cheney had asked the agency about reports that Iraq bought yellowcake from Niger. According to a declassified CIA memo, Wilson found that Iraq had sent a commercial delegation to Niger to expand trade and that the only Niger export Iraq would care about was yellowcake. So there was an attempt, but it proved fruitless. In his 2003 State of Union address, Bush said the British had reported an effort by Iraq to buy “significant quantities of uranium” in Africa. In his July 6, 2003, Times op-ed, Wilson suggested that that statement was evidence the administration was manipulating intelligence to push the war. But Bush said only that the British reported that Iraq “sought” to purchase yellowcake, which was precisely what Wilson had found and reported, according to the CIA. Still, the op-ed caused a furor, and the White House quickly backed off the statements about Iraqi efforts.

    Since it is the premise of the film, it’s worth asking: Did the Bush administration distort intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq, as Wilson claimed?

    A year after Wilson’s op-ed appeared, on July 9, 2004, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report that found that the intelligence available at the time Bush delivered his speech supported what Bush said. A month later, on August 23, 2004, the University of Pennsylvania’s nonpartisan voter watchdog,, concluded: “The famous ‘16 words’ in President Bush’s Jan. 28, 2003 State of the Union address turn out to have a basis in fact after all.” The organization noted that: “Ironically, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who later called Bush’s 16 words a ‘lie,’ supplied information that the Central Intelligence Agency took as confirmation that Iraq may indeed have been seeking uranium from Niger.” The bipartisan Robb-Silberman Commission reached the same conclusion. Yet, as recently as October 19 at a showing of Fair Game at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md., Wilson continued to argue that what Bush said in his speech was “bullshit” and that Bush had “skewed facts for political reasons.” The anti-Bush audience ate it up. But it sure looks as if Wilson is doing precisely what he accused Bush of doing.

    Valerie Plame says in her memoir that she read the report that the CIA wrote immediately after debriefing Wilson on his trip and also read his column before it was published. She added that she thought the column was accurate. She said the report was only a few pages long. No one, let alone a professional intelligence officer, could have missed the part about Iraq trying to buy yellowcake. She had to know the column was wrong, but evidently said nothing. So she was anything but an innocent bystander as her husband created a political firestorm.

    The movie portrays Lewis “Scooter” Libby as the mastermind behind the leak that outed Plame and suggests the move was part of a plot to smear Wilson. But columnist Robert Novak, who broke the story about Plame’s CIA link, testified at Libby’s trial that Libby did not tell him about Plame. Nor did the prosecution ever claim that Libby leaked to Novak. Novak testified that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage — no ally of Libby and Cheney — was the source. Armitage apparently leaked Plame’s CIA job as an offhand bit of gossip at the end of an interview. Armitage was not part of any White House plot to out Plame. CIA spokesman Bill Harlow and White House advisor Karl Rove later confirmed for Novak that Plame worked for CIA —again, no connection to Libby. To show how far the movie diverges from reality, Armitage — who should have been a key character — isn’t even in the film, except for a note at the end that mentions his role.

    In a question and answer period after the AFI screening, director and Plame/Wilson hagiographer Doug Liman insisted he was “diligent” about fact-checking. He said he left out Armitage and made Libby the heavy “for efficiency of storytelling.” After all, he said, “it all ultimately led back to Scooter Libby,” who, Liman said, put Plame’s name in a memo Armitage saw. But this is simply not true: according to testimony at the trial, a State Department official, Carl Ford, wrote the memo. Libby had no hand in it.

    The entire thrust of Liman’s film, told from the Wilson/Plame point of view, is that the White House did something wrong, that it manipulated intelligence and then retaliated against Wilson by exposing a covert operative and endangering national security. But no one was ever charged with violating the law that makes it illegal to expose spies because the law requires an intent to undermine CIA operations, which neither Armitage, nor Rove, nor the CIA spokesman had. As trial testimony showed, neither Libby nor anyone else knew Plame was covert. Most importantly, Libby was acquitted on the only charges that relate to leaking Plame’s CIA employment.

    Libby was charged with lying during the investigation about three phone calls with reporters. These calls occurred on the weekend following Wilson’s op-ed. The prosecution claimed that in two of these calls, reporters Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time asked Libby about Plame’s CIA employment and that Libby confirmed it. Libby denied that he had confirmed her employment for them. Judge Reggie Walton and the jury found for Libby. The judge said there was no evidence to support the charge about Miller and threw it out midway through the case. The prosecution’s evidence of the Cooper leak was so feeble that the jury acquitted Libby on that charge.

    Libby’s conviction turned on his testimony about a phone call with NBC’s Tim Russert that occurred the day before the two calls with Miller and Cooper. Ironically, the prosecution charged that during the Russert conversation Wilson’s wife was not discussed.

    Liman told Variety his screenwriters sat through the entire trial. Did they leave before the verdict or did they just ignore it? If Liman wanted to make a movie about what actually happened, Armitage, the CIA spokesman, and Novak would have been the focus — not Libby.

    So what was Libby’s conviction about? Months after the events, Libby testified that Russert had told him that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. Libby had already testified that he had first learned about Wilson’s wife’s CIA employment from the vice president, but he believed he had also heard about her CIA employment in his conversation with Russert a month later and that he had been surprised when Russert said it. At trial, Russert testified that he could not have told Libby because he did not know about Plame until he read Novak’s column. The prosecution claimed Libby lied about the Russert call so Libby could suggest he forgot about the Cheney conversation and passed on information from Russert to Miller and Cooper. That would insulate him from charges that he passed on classified information from Cheney and that he leaked Plame’s name — a fireable offense in President Bush’s view. But since Libby didn’t leak as charged, and since he disclosed what Cheney had told him about Plame, it means the jury convicted him of lying to cover up crimes he didn’t commit and to protect a boss he wasn’t protecting — an absurd conclusion.

    How did this happen? Juror Denis Collins said in an interview that the jury was not tasked with coming up with a motive. But motive turns an innocent faulty memory into a knowing lie, which amounts to perjury or obstruction of justice. As the prosecution told the jury, “People don’t lie for the heck of it; they have to have a reason.” Since Libby didn’t leak to the reporters, and since he had testified truthfully about learning of Plame from Cheney, Libby had no reason to lie about his Russert conversation. Collins declined to address that issue. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, through a spokesman, also declined comment for this article. At trial, Libby’s team offered a simple, innocent explanation for the discrepancy between his testimony and Russert’s: Russert’s memory or Libby’s could have been mistaken. Libby’s team showed throughout the trial that every witness had made memory errors in testifying months or even years after events, including Russert. Most notably, the FBI’s memorandum of the first interview with Russert indicated Russert said he could not completely rule out the possibility that he had discussed Plame with Libby, as Libby had said. On the stand more than three years later, Russert denied having said that to the FBI. Russert also said if someone in his bureau knew about Plame, he would have known about her, in which case he could have told Libby. Libby’s team uncovered a videotaped admission, made shortly before Russert’s initial FBI interview, that one of Russert’s top people knew about Plame before the Novak column. But the judge did not allow the jury to see the videotape.

    Libby also argued that his own memory could have been wrong. Novak and Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward both testified that they may well have discussed Plame with Libby around the time he spoke with Russert, and that Libby confirmed nothing for them. Cooper raised Plame with Libby the next day, and Libby confirmed nothing for Cooper. The Cooper conversation was similar to the one Libby recalled having with Russert. Testifying months after the fact, Libby may have mixed up the middle-aged reporter with whom he had a brief phone discussion about Plame.

    To show the jury how likely it was that either Libby or Russert could have made a simple memory error, the defense had assembled a team of some of America’s leading memory scientists. But Judge Walton made a disastrous decision to exclude expert testimony about memory. The judge, who declined comment, said in court he barred memory testimony because he believed jurors’ daily experience enables them to know how memory works.

    In fact, popular conceptions about memory — how memory works, how frequently memory errors (including false memories) occur — directly contradict scientific findings. The memory scientists would have shown how memories don’t just fade, they change, often dramatically, as they are confused or contaminated with other events that occur at the time of an event, in the months following, or at the time of attempted retrieval. Scientific studies show it’s particularly difficult to recall when an event occurred and who was involved. People are often unaware their memories have changed, leading them to believe their memory errors are much less frequent than scientific studies show they are. This is true even for important events, let alone the details — persons involved, the precise timing of things — of events that may not seem important as they are happening.

    The jury understood that the accuracy of memory was important to the case. As one juror put it during deliberations, according to an op-ed Collins wrote: “If this trial is about memory, why haven’t we heard from any memory experts? I’d like to know what’s possible to forget.” Or, as the experts would say, how possible it is to confuse a memory or create a false one. So while the judge didn’t think the jury needed expert testimony, the jurors did.

    While the experts had years of scientific studies of memory to back up their testimony, a study conducted shortly after the trial showed how difficult it is to remember something not considered important at the time it happens — even if it becomes important later (like when a grand jury asks about it). The study also showed people think the opposite — that you can recall the information when it becomes important long after the fact. Plame’s identity and involvement in sending Wilson to Niger were not important at the time. Libby and Cheney focused on rebutting Wilson’s false claims that Cheney sent him to Niger and saw his report, and Plame had nothing to do with that. But the jury’s conventional view of memory suggested Libby should have recalled any earlier discussions long after the fact because of their ultimate significance. The later study, conducted by professors from Harvard and the University of Virginia and published in Psychological Science, was subtitled “The Scooter Libby Effect.”

    Because of another ruling by the judge, the jury did not know what Libby was doing during periods that memory research shows can lead to memory errors, such as confusing the source of information. Events around the time of a conversation, the time of recall, and anything in between are all important to assess memory, experts say. But the judge excluded that information from the trial. The bottom line, according to Harvard memory expert David Schacter, who has reviewed the case: “As someone who has studied memory for a lifetime, I could not render a fair decision based on the evidence before the jury. I do not believe that they could, either.”

    While the jurors understood the importance of memory errors for the case, they weren’t aware of their own missteps. For example, Collins says that one of the most important pieces of evidence the jury focused on was a copy of Wilson’s Times op-ed on which Cheney had written some notes about Plame. In explaining the jury’s findings, Collins recalled that investigators found the annotated op-ed in Libby’s drawer and thought it impossible for Libby to have forgotten about Cheney’s notes. But the trial made clear that investigators actually found the article in Cheney’s safe. There was no evidence Libby had seen Cheney’s notes. Jurors thus had faulty memories about the one thing they focused on for weeks — the trial — yet couldn’t conceive that Libby might have had a faulty memory about a part of one of hundreds of conversations he had months before he testified.

    The more you probe, the more Kafkaesque the case becomes. Conversations prosecution witnesses failed to remember became proof Libby couldn’t have forgotten them. Witnesses said the FBI’s potentially exculpatory contemporaneous notes about their testimony were wrong, and their more incriminating memories to the contrary months later were right. When a key prosecution witness was shown to have been confused about which reporter he spoke to about Wilson’s wife, the prosecution argued that a faulty memory “about Wilson’s wife does not in any way, shape or form suggest a reason why [the witness] would fabricate, make up, or invent a story.” For the prosecution, confusing which reporter a witness had a conversation with doesn’t mean the witness is lying. Unless the witness’s name is Scooter Libby. The movie should have starred Ludacris, not Sean Penn.

    Even at the end of the long ordeal, poor memory — and irony — continued to played a role. Libby called White House counsel Fred Fielding as the clock was winding down on Bush’s term to ask if he could meet with the president to make his case for a pardon. Fielding mentioned he had received a call from a senator who had defended Libby. That surprised Libby, who knew the senator but had not considered him an ardent supporter. And Libby suggested it might have been another senator who Libby knew had spoken to Fielding.

    Libby, who answered questions for this article, asked Fielding three times if he was sure it was the senator Fielding mentioned, and Fielding insisted that it was. But a little later, Fielding realized that he had made a mistake and that the senator Libby had mentioned was the one who had called. “Fred,” Libby said wryly, “you could be indicted.” The incident evidently didn’t convince Fielding that Libby may have made a similar memory error. Fielding didn’t return calls seeking comment.

    In sum, Fair Game unfairly distorts what Libby did. Fact is, Libby was acquitted of the only charges that involved him leaking to reporters, and his conviction for lying to Russert to cover up crimes he didn’t commit makes no sense. The defense’s efforts to rebut the prosecution claim that he lied about his conversation with Russert were crippled by the judge’s rulings. The missing testimony, including expert testimony by memory scientists — something the jury said they wanted to hear — could well have changed Libby’s fate.

    It’s time to get the facts right about the Plame affair. Fair Game perpetuates the myths about it and confirms what so many believe, but which just ain’t so. It’s Exhibit No. l for the proposition that allegations live on while the truth dies, buried on page A18.

    Stan Crock is the former Washington news editor and chief diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek. A Democrat who has known Libby socially for decades, he worked briefly as a consultant for the Libby defense team two years ago.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon