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Liman and Loach unveil hotly awaited Iraq war-related thrillers

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2010-05-21

The war in Iraq hit screens on the Croisette on Thursday with two eagerly awaited political thrillers: Route Irish, from past Palme d'Or winner Ken Loach, and Fair Game, from Cannes first-timer Doug Liman.

The Croisette returned to politics on Thursday with competition screenings of Doug Liman's Fair Game and Ken Loach's Route Irish, two enthusiastically awaited thrillers grappling with Iraq war-related themes. Doug Liman's presence in the line-up is a surprise, given his background in both small-scale comedy (Swingers) and big-budget action (The Bourne Identity, Mr. And Mrs. Smith), and that he is the only US director selected. As for Ken Loach, his Route Irish was a last-minute entry, and critics were eager to see if the English specialist in social realism had something new up his sleeve after last year's light-hearted Looking for Eric.

The answer wasn't clear. Though Route Irish is a perfectly respectable return to Loach's bleak roots, it doesn't add much to the growing pool of Iraq war films. Loach tells the story of Fergus, a scrappy Brit and former employee of a private security contractor in Iraq, who becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth about the death of his best friend and colleague. Suspecting foul play, Fergus teams up with his friend's grieving widow Rachel to hunt down the wrongdoers.

Loach brings his customary intensity to the material, and scenes dealing with the growing bond between Fergus and Rachel have a raw impact. But the director and his screenwriter Paul Laverty have a heavy hand with whodunit intrigue and dialogue, and Route Irish lacks tension and shape. It plods along sturdily enough, but never lures you into its viper's nest of corruption and violence or the desperation of its characters' search.

As has been the case in the past, Loach can be clumsy when it comes to integrating his political passions into the story. His work is never less than intelligent, but in the
 case of Route Irish, at least, the resulting film can barely breathe beneath the didacticism.

US director Doug Liman's ideological leanings are hazier than Loach's, but he has a more finely tuned instinct for suspense. His taut, riveting entertainment comes as a nice change in a line-up loaded down with misery and suffering. Telling the true story of how former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson (played by Naomi Watts) came to be outed, the film connects a rather convoluted series of dots with admirable lucidity and breathless pacing.

For those who didn't follow the explosive headlines back in 2003: Bush administration officials revealed Plame's identity to discredit her ambassador husband Joseph (played by Sean Penn), who had written a New York Times op-ed piece accusing the White House of dishonesty about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Fair Game's first hour is a lesson in economical storytelling and carefully calibrated mood. As Valerie zips around the world, pretending to be someone she's not, rushing back to report on her findings, and trying to maintain a semblance of normal family life, Liman's jittery camera brings out a palpable anxiety beneath the character's stoicism. Watts has always been a slightly reserved actress, a quality that makes her well suited to play this woman, who must keep her cards close to her chest in threatening situations. When her shell ever so slightly starts to crack, the shift feels cataclysmic.

Sean Penn, as her more volatile husband, is as forceful and effortless as one would expect. His outrage is the motor of the story, but Fair Game wisely keeps the Hollywood histrionics to a minimum. What emerges alongside a crackling tale of political betrayal is a convincing portrait of an unconventional marriage, in which two stubborn individuals challenge each other to stay true to their moral standards.

Fair Game stumbles in its last twenty minutes, when certain scenes feel overly formatted - Valerie's pep talk with her father, a teary reconciliation... But despite gripes that the movie "is not for Cannes", it is one of a small handful of works in competition that mostly accomplishes what it sets out to do. In this case, Liman the entertainer might have given a pointer or two to Loach the serious auteur.

Date created : 2010-05-21