Ann Hornaday on premieres of 'Countdown to Zero,' 'Wall Street 2,' 'Inside Job'

Click through coverage of all the red carpet events and cinema buzz at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
By Ann Hornaday
Monday, May 17, 2010

CANNES, FRANCE -- It should come as no surprise that weird moments abound during the Festival de Cannes, given the number of renowned filmmakers, rabid movie fans and frolicking stars gathered here from around the world.

On a given afternoon, you might see a gaggle of men in tuxedoes and their be-gowned dates swigging from a bottle of champagne while walking down the Croisette, or come nearly to blows in a movie line. (A little advice: Never get between a Frenchwoman and the new Woody Allen movie.)

But Valerie Plame Wilson may be having the strangest Cannes experience yet. The former CIA covert operations officer came here on behalf of not one but two films. She appears in the documentary "Countdown to Zero," in which she serves as a nuclear counterproliferation expert; and later this week she will attend the world premiere of "Fair Game," a dramatization of her memoir in which she's being played by Naomi Watts.

Wilson, along with Queen Noor of Jordan and former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, turned out for a news conference Sunday after a screening of "Countdown to Zero," which makes a swift, soberingly urgent case for the comprehensive elimination of nuclear weapons in a world that has gone from Cold War certainties to asymmetrical chaos. (Queen Noor and Brundtland are both active in the nonproliferation movement.)

"What are the odds?" Wilson said when asked about her film festival appearances. "Beyond what the physicists at Los Alamos could calculate."

(Sending yet another shot across the bow of the art-life continuum, when Wilson is climbing the red carpet Thursday night at the "Fair Game" premiere, actor Sean Penn -- who plays her husband Joe in the movie -- will be in Washington at a Senate committee hearing on Haiti.)

When "Countdown to Zero" producer Lawrence Bender asked Valerie Wilson to be in his film, she said, she welcomed the chance to revisit her professional bailiwick -- in 2003, when her identity as a CIA covert operations officer was famously disclosed, her field of expertise was working to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

"I'd gone from a job I loved, where discretion was paramount, to all of a sudden being the focus of unreal media attention, and I found that extremely difficult," she said, adding that now "I get to participate in something that I have some expertise in. . . . And if none of this had happened, I would be somewhere in the world today working on those issues very happily with my own identity still to myself."

As for watching herself being played by Watts in the movie version of her life? "Surreal is what I would call it."

"Surreal" also came to mind Saturday at the serene Hotel du Cap, just up the rocky coastline from Cannes, where the cast of "Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps," along with the film's director, Oliver Stone, met with journalists. Michael Douglas was on hand -- he returns as lovable villain Gordon Gekko, freshly released from prison after serving time for fraud and inside trading -- as well as co-stars Carey Mulligan and Frank Langella.

But it was 23-year-old Shia LaBeouf (he plays a young trader engaged to Gekko's daughter) who offered the day's most surprising answer when he delivered an extemporaneous -- or terribly well-rehearsed -- mini-speech encapsulating 300 years of economic history.

"Look at the ascent of money," LaBeouf said, answering a question about credit default swaps. "What was money essentially created for? You had farmers putting in surplus crops into granaries. And they would give you a ceramic piece of info that told you how much your surplus was. And then you have the Spanish, who went after gold so hard that gold became a standard. And then World War I and the fall of a superpower in England.

"And [then] the end of the gold standard and the rise of America. . . . Now you're living through the rise of China and the creation of a synthetic marketplace and money that doesn't even exist. There's nothing to hold anymore. . . . If you pooled all the money in the world and put it into a pot, you're $200 trillion short."

Okay then!

LaBeouf's passion about financial arcana and the rise of capitalism actually shouldn't come as a shock at Cannes. The festival also screened the highly anticipated documentary "Inside Job," about the global economic meltdown. Charles Ferguson's sleek and purposely infuriating film lays out in methodical and stunning detail the factors that led to the financial collapse of 2008, threading viewers through a complicated skein of financial information with smooth assurance and clear-eyed analysis. (Ferguson, who got rich during the high-tech boom of the 1990s and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, directed the Oscar-nominated 2007 film "No End in Sight.")

Although much of the terrain has been covered before, in such films as "Maxed Out," "I.O.U.S.A." and Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story," Ferguson's "Inside Job" deserves to be considered an authoritative primer on the financial collapse, and it's the first examination of the crisis to implicate not only Wall Street executives, regulators and ratings agencies but also academics and business school administrators who were paid consultants of corporations while offering seemingly objective opinions about their economic soundness.

Although Ferguson said a few modest words of thanks in French and English before the screening, he offered stronger views in his director's statement, in which he decried "progressive deregulation of the financial sector since the 1980s [that] gave rise to an increasingly criminal industry, whose 'innovations' have produced a succession of financial crises."

Words of wisdom worthy of Professor LeBeouf himself.

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