12/4/10

Fair Game Exposes Bush Lies Despite Weak Direction


Fair Game (2010)
Directed by Doug Liman
108 mins. PG-13
* * *

Need a reminder that things could always be worse? Check out Fair Game, the film that tells the real-life story of former CIA spy/analyst Valerie Plame and her husband, ex-diplomat Joe Wilson. It’s not a great film, but it is a hammer-to-the-face wakeup call that even if you think Barack Obama is a disappointment, he’s not actively evil like his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Is evil too harsh a word? I don’t think so. Plame, you may recall, was a CIA operative whose identity was outted by the Bush administration in 2003 as a way to exact revenge against her husband. What did Joe Wilson do that was so awful? When he found that a study he authored was doctored and being cited as justification for going to war against Iraq, Wilson wrote to the New York Times to tell the truth. In the lead up to the war, the Bush team told Americans that Saddam Hussein had purchased enriched uranium cake from Niger, which it intended to pack into aluminum tubes and make into nuclear bombs. Problem one: the CIA’s own intelligence said that the tubes could not be used for that purpose. Problem two: the CIA could not confirm that Saddam even had aluminum tubes. Problem three was a doozie: the CIA had sent Wilson to Niger with the express purpose of verifying the purchase of “yellow cake” uranium; he reported back that there was absolutely no truth to the rumor. Understand the magnitude of this. It means that the entire of Gulf War II is a lie. It means that every single U.S. soldier who has died in Iraq has sacrificed his or her life for a deliberate falsehood, as have tens of thousands of Iraqis. Does that qualify as evil?

If not, how about the fact that Dick Cheney forced the CIA to agree with the administration’s concocted reading of non-evidence? How about Karl Rove and Scooter Libby convincing President Bush to strike back at Wilson by exposing his wife’s identity? How about the decision to go forth with that plan even though it meant signing the death warrant of all of Plame’s on-the-ground Iraqi intelligence sources and scientists who had cooperated with her? And how about an organized campaign by the Bush team to smear Plame and Wilson, harass their family, and libel their character? How about creating a climate of fear so palpable that anyone who spoke out—remember the Dixie Chicks fiasco?—found their patriotism impugned? How about creating an environment so poisonous that the actor who plays Bush in this film isn’t even credited on imdb? (Too bad; he got the smirk, swagger, and arrogance down perfectly.)

Fair Game takes its name from Plame’s own memoir and is meant to be taken literally—as in anyone was fair game for the Bush team’s lies—and ironically—as in no sense of fair play whatsoever. It is a well-acted film with Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as Wilson, two veterans capable of taking Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s limp script and Doug Liman’s uninspired direction further than they ought to go. Watts is especially good at balancing the character of Plame as a woman who must simultaneously cordon off from her friends her real identity, play spy hardball in dangerous places, be a mother to two small children, and try to express the very emotions she had been taught to suppress in her relations with her husband. Penn gives his usual intense performance and, though I could have done without the clich├ęd schoolroom speech near the end, he does a decent job of expressing moral outrage and of showing what gave Wilson the sheer chutzpah to speak out at a time in which it cost a lot to do so.

It is a testament to Watts and Penn that this film works as well as it does. It’s a chilling story that’s nearly made pallid by weak direction. Put simply, Liman—best known for directing The Bourne Identity--doesn’t seem to be up to the challenge of presenting nonfiction material this potent. I kept wondering how much better this film would have been if directed by someone such as Sidney Lumet. Go see the film for the civics lesson, not the filmmaking. People have wondered why only Scooter Libby went to jail and why Bush wasn’t impeached. After seeing this film your position will shift and you’ll find yourself asking why he, Cheney, and Rove weren’t lined up against a wall and shot. Fair Game? I think not. How about War Criminals?--LV

12/1/10

Baseball free Agency: A Guide for GMs Who Want to Stay Employed

Which GM will be the next to get burned by baseball's Hot Stove wheeling and dealing?

Somebody told me they’re still playing NFL football. As if I care. Not! December means major league baseball’s Hot Stove League is stoking up. This is the time of the year in which--as they say of second marriages--hope triumphs over experience and guys who have had mediocre careers become instant gadzillionaires. As a public service I offer a guide to save general managers from themselves. Here’s my insider’s take on the free agency market.


Let’s start with the early dumb signing. That would be the Marlins’ decision to sign Javier Vasquez to a one-year $7 million deal. The world “gutless” pretty much sums up Vasquez. He may have “good stuff”--as we’re always told--but the $7 million arm comes with a fifty-cent makeup. He’s had one decent year (Atlanta 2009) and simply can’t pitch under pressure. I’d say $7 million is inflated by a factor of at least half.


Vasquez falls into the category of players who should have been great but never were. They’re like Chicken Little and after a while, a smart GM would just walk away. Here are a group of never-will-bes to which a general manager would have be crazy to offer anything more than a minor league deal: Vicente Padilla, Kyle Farnsworth, Kevin Millwood. Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver. Seriously--these are the kind of guys who get GMs fired. They light up radar guns and look great in tryouts. In actual games they turn .240 guys into Ted Williams. The hitter equivalents to these flameouts are Matt Stairs and Carlos Pena. Why would anyone want a strikeout king with an iron glove like Stairs? Pena hits lots of homeruns. The problem is he hits almost nothing else. Do you give several million to a player who can’t hit .200? Not me.


Closely related to the above are the guys who were good at one time, but who have been so ravaged by injuries that it simply makes no sense to offer serious money: Brandon Webb, Erik Bedard, Freddy Garcia, Scott Prior, Ben Sheets. These were rising stars once, but they’re supernova now. Sign only at bargain basement prices.

And let’s hear it for the over-the-hill gang. These guys would be worth Filene’s Basement prices, but if they start talking salad days salaries, hide the checkbook: Johnny Damon, Lance Berkman, Edgar Renteria, Orlando Hudson.


A subset is the don’t-touch-this guys who are either poison or steroid frauds, with Jason Giambi and Jose Guillen topping the list. And then there’s Manny Ramirez, who has a category of his own titled “More Trouble than He’s Worth.” In the flat-out “Stick-a-Fork-in-Him-Done” category is Jason Varitek.


Also to be avoided are the walk-year wonders. Heading this list is Carl Pavano. I don’t want to hear about his “turn around year” in Minnesota. Let Pavano pitch three straight decent years and I’ll remove him from the Turkey list. Until then, any GM who fills his carcass full of green stuffing is as stupid as Brian Cashman four years ago. Pavano’s 97-89 lifetime. How does that translate into anything other than short change? While I’m on the topic, why on earth would anyone offer Adrian Beltre a multiyear contract? A little history. The dude hit .334 in Los Angeles in his walk year in 2004 and then averaged around .255 in five mediocre years in Seattle. In 2010, another walk year, he hit .321 in Boston. Detect a pattern here?


Are there any bargains out there? Austin Kearns is a good buy for a team in need of a solid backup outfielder, and I’d be tempted to pay Magglio Ordonez an incentive-laden one-year deal rather than overpaying for Jayson Werth, especially if I’m an AL GM. Those NL guys have a habit of flaming out in the AL. Besides, I think Werth will end up back in Philly.


So let’s get to the Big Names in free agency. Add me to the list of those leery of Carl Crawford. The Angels are Jonesing for him and I’d say “good luck” and save my money. I would have wanted Crawford three years ago, but his game is simply built too much on speed and he’s already lost a step. He’s a solid player, but not worth what will be demanded. Love Scott Downs, but do you surrender a first-round draft choice and a supplemental for a situational lefty? Not me. I’m also fond of closer Rafael Soriano, but he’s a Scott Boras client and will command way more than his actual value.


This leaves Mariano Rivera and all any sane person can say to the Yankees is, “Pay the man.” At age 41 he’s still among the best in MLB. Who can you sign with an ERA of 1.80? Nobody. On the other hand, as big a fan as I have been of
Derek Jeter,
three years at $45 million strikes me as very charitable. It may be time for the Yankees to remind Jeter’s agent that they let Damon walk last year. Jeter would not get half of this on the open market, so hardball is the game to play. Face-saving gesture: add a passel of incentives to Jeter’s contract. Hey, if he returns to form and hits .330 again, it would be worth another $5 million, yes?


This leaves the big prize, Cliff Lee. I like Lee, but I don’t like him for more than three years and I think it will take five or six to sign him. This leaves the Yankees as the clear favorites to sign him. If they do, they need to think of it as three years of production and two (or more) years of charity. He should get three years at $60 million; he’ll probably get five at $120 million. Lee has said he doesn’t like pitching in the Texas heat and who can blame him? Arlington in August is more suitable for a reptile ranch than Rangers baseball. But if he takes inflated dough to go to the Bronx he’d better help deliver championship 28, or he’ll be the new Carl(a) Pavano and the Texas sun will seem like Baffin Island compared to the scorching he’ll get in the New York media.



11/30/10

James McMurtry Live in Europe


James McMurtry
Live in Europe
Lightening Red Records
* * * *

The word has been out for some time now: James McMurtry is a musical tour de force. Think the storytelling ability of his father (author Larry McMurtry), the sardonic wit of John Prine, Townes Van Zandt’s wry commentary of life on the downside, and Steve Earle’s grit. Live in Europe is proof that McMurtry’s also a helluva live performer. On stage with his longtime band—now no longer officially called The Heartless Bastards—McMurtry served the Europeans a zesty slice of Americana. The CD opens with the swamp rock “Bayou Tortue,” a visit to a place where “maybe we’ll get lucky, maybe get shot.” Looking for easy answers? Keep looking, because McMurtry prefers tales of people searching for and not finding them. But he sure can spin interesting tales about the journey to nowhere. “Just Us Kids” starts with a group of dropouts fed up with this “small town bullshit” and takes us on a trip with stops in California, Mexico, divorce court, the skids, and old age. Call it the tour of Baby Boomer casualties. This album is chockfull of folks that don’t quite fit in—a troubled Gulf-War-vet-turned-wrangler (“Ruby and Carlos”), a wanderlust-stricken woman who can gamble and quote Proust (“Restless”), and various folks who do what they know they ought not to do (“You’d a Thought”). McMurtry works each song hard, slinging his electric guitar through that interstice in which folk, rock, and country music collide and shatter.

McMurtry is currently touring solo across the United States and I can think of little better than catching a performance and taking the Europe album home with you as a memento.

Check out some good audio clips on his Website: http://www.jamesmcmurtry.com/