Fair Game is the kind of film that expects to incite passion and outrage. By every token, it should. It centers on two gravely wronged people—Valerie Plame Wilson (Naomi Watts) and her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn)—whose careers were destroyed when their opinions conflicted with the George W Bush administration’s agenda.
Bush and company wanted to find weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to justify their invasion of the country. But Plame Wilson and her fellow CIA operatives couldn’t find them. The vindictive 2003 leak of Plame Wilson’s covert CIA agent status by conservative Washington Post newspaper columnist Robert Novak (who was given her identity by Bush insiders) essentially shelved her career and put her contacts’ lives at great risk (and ultimately led to the Wilsons’ Santa Fe relocation).
As Valerie, Watts is CIA-agent-as-babe, a distinct visual contradiction to our cultural stereotype of spooks as generic, gray-suited men. Her glamorous look and globe-trotting work alone should make Valerie’s story cinema-ready. Unfortunately, Fair Game is not quite the rapid-fire political thriller it sets out to be, despite all of director/cinematographer Doug Liman’s best efforts. The film’s frenzied pace, intercut with TV news clips of the bombing of Baghdad and jaw-flapping TV pundits, gives it a sense of urgency that its often slack, emotionally distanced storytelling can’t match.
Working from a script adapted from both the Wilsons’ memoirs, Liman (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Identity) seems inspired by the chaotic hand-held camera work and zeitgeisty global landscapes of his previous films.
Valerie is a passive hero, not willing to accept that mantle, just anxious to do her job without interference. For that reason, she’s mostly overshadowed by her hothead husband who rushes to the national media to tell his side of the story. Valerie comes off as more undefined and quixotically motivated, the kind of person who would rather fade into the woodwork. Like Batman, her real identity is a secret, even among her friends, and she shares a similar sense of stoic opacity with that action hero.
A good portion of the film details the nitty-gritty of Valerie and Joseph’s workaday reality: frantic schedules, child-care conflicts, workplace politics. The difficulty of arranging their schedules to accommodate work and children looks nearly equal to the difficulty of being smeared as anti-patriotic commies by the right-wing press and White House. But despite all that privileging of domesticity and the intimate side of the couples’ lives, they feel like less-than-flesh-and-blood people. Even more flat and featureless are the appearances of bold-face look-alikes (Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Ari Fleischer, Karl Rove), which come across as pure kitsch.
Fair Game’s best moments are probably the yuppie dinner parties at which Valerie and Joseph’s know-it-all friends debate Iraq and WMDs and other hot topics of the day. The smug sense of ownership of world events is commonplace in the West, even as stories such as Plame Wilson’s show that the news we receive is often just the tip of the iceberg: Hidden agendas abound. It’s an insight in a film that is largely a rehash of a scandal which, at least in this film version, has little bite.
To read SFR's interview with Valerie Plame Wilson about the film, Click HERE.
Directed by Doug Liman
With Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Bruce McGill, Michael Kelly and Ty Burrell
Opens Friday, Nov. 19
108 min., PG-13