Fair Game offers a glimpse into the damage, both personal and collateral, that occurs when Washington takes its political scuffles into the media. Unfortunately, the personal drama lacks a certain punch while the collateral gets lost amid the shouting.
The life of Valerie Plame (played by Naomi Watts) unraveled in 2003 when her identity as a covert CIA officer was leaked to the press following her husband Joe Wilson’s challenge of White House claims that the Iraqi government had sought to purchase uranium from Niger. A former diplomat, Wilson (Sean Penn) had investigated the allegation a year earlier and found no substantial evidence to support the charges. After the Bush administration used the uranium rumor as an argument for the invasion of Iraq, Wilson wrote a series of opinion pieces in The New York Times revealing his trip to Niger and questioning the factual basis for the war.
Within days of Wilson’s column arguing that President Bush had misrepresented intelligence in his State of the Union Address, Plame was outed in the press as an “agency operative” who had unofficially recommended her husband for the Niger investigation. Painting the connection as improper, the White House destroyed Wilson’s credibility and Plame’s career as a deep-cover agent.
Directed by Doug Liman, Fair Game spends much of its first half investigating the key points of the Bush administration’s justification for war: Iraq’s interests in building a centrifuge to produce weaponized uranium. This becomes the crux of several humorous moments between CIA agents and the Office of the Vice President as they debate the existence, size and use of aluminum tubes. This part of the film, in which Wilson’s trip to Niger and Plame’s intelligence operations in Iraq take center stage, is the most successful. As depicted in the film, Plame worked to get several Iraqi nuclear scientists out of the country because, in her words, “they’re the weapons of mass destruction.” While based on actual events, this section of the film has the slickness of Liman’s earlier film, The Bourne Identity. Instead of action and car chases, the thrill comes in the investigations and Plame’s ability to turn key assets — that is, get people to betray their countries — for U.S. interests.
Plame is assisted by Fred (Ty Burrell), a CIA co-worker who is at times funny — particularly in any scene involving the aluminum rods — and utterly chilling as he eventually leaves Plame to the wolves. Burrell’s greatest strength is his ability to subtly change his smile from friendly to unsympathetic. The same acting choices that played for laughs earlier become haunting in his final scenes.
The scientists are a worthy subplot, taking up a hefty portion of screen time. Plame must first find someone who can enter Iraq and deliver a message on her behalf. She must then get one of the scientists, Hammad (Khaled Nabawy), to trust her with an offer to smuggle him and his family out of the country. Hammad is no doubt a composite character, but his plight is the most compelling in the film as the machinations of the White House and the CIA could spell death for him and his family.
When Plame is revealed as CIA agent by columnist Robert Novak, the focus shifts sharply to focus on how he learned her identity, and the spy movie gives way to a domestic drama as Wilson’s self-righteous defense of himself and his wife threatens to destroy their marriage. While little more than a guest in the first half of the film, here Penn comes on strong in a shouting, swaggering performance that actually undercuts the preceding hour. It often feels as if Penn is in search of an Oscar-worthy moment.
The breakdown of the marriage doesn’t seem to merit the scope it takes on in the film’s running time. Using Wilson and Plame’s memoirs The Politics of Truth and Fair Game as the basis for the movie, screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth never fuse the couple’s personal conflicts properly with the larger national story. Although their marriage was strained in real life, most of those scenes play out as the least-believable parts of Fair Game. Their writing, like Penn’s performance, is overly dramatic.
While the domestic scenes fail, Watts delivers a solid performance throughout. In the first half, she is a master manipulator who would be at home in such films as Spy Game or Sneakers. She displays the confidence a person in Plame’s position must possess, and nails any scene where she has to talk someone into a life-threatening situation. Even in the film’s weaker moments, Watts keeps the plight of her character believable as Plame’s world slides from her intelligence operation to being hounded about her husband to finally fleeing from his crusade.
Regardless of the faults in the script, it’s pleasing to see Liman handle some more mature material. Although he directed The Bourne Identity, he has spent the last few years on more straightforward action fare like Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Jumper. With a scaled-back budget and scope, he returns to a more provocative type of handheld directing as seen in his earlier films, like Go. Hopefully, he can continue to offer his off-beat talents to material like this.
Despite some notable flaws, Summit Entertainment’s Fair Game is an interesting look at how Washington can manipulate national discourse and disrupt lives in sometimes earth-shattering ways. It also offers a more personal look at headlines that, although recent, already feel like ancient history.
Fair Game opens today.
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