Although Fair Game has the dubious honor of sharing a title with a truly awful Cindy Crawford/William Baldwin flick, thankfully that’s all the two movies have in common. Based on the true story of Valerie Plame, Fair Game focuses on the consequences of one man standing up for what he believes in, a talented woman who loses her job and reputation by no fault of her own, a government hell-bent on destroying the lives of two respectable citizens simply to change the news cycle, and how easily one piece of information can change everything.
Naomi Watts stars as CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame. After her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) takes an information gathering assignment to discover if Iraq is buying yellow cake uranium from Niger, he’s horrified to learn the truth of his findings have been perverted to help justify the United States going to war with Iraq.
Unwilling to keep quiet, Wilson’s struggle for the truth puts the White House in a bind. They used his intelligence, along with that of a disgruntled CIA operative whose opinion had been shot down by his superiors, as proof of Iraq’s nuclear proliferation. Unable to sidestep the issue, White House adviser Scooter Libby (David Andrews) decides to change the story by disparaging Wilson’s character and outing his wife as an agent for the CIA.
The focus on the film is the resulting chaos which ensues. Not only are Plame and Wilson put in the middle of a never-ending news cycle, the the family also receives death threats and struggles with a growing tension of how best to handle the situation. Wilson believes in standing up and not letting the White House paint them as liars and fools, but Plame is more concerned with attempting to weather the storm and not attack the country she’s served loyally for almost two full decades.
There are three groups of causalities identified in the script by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth: The reputations of Wilson and Plame (along with the added stress to their marriage), the American people who were deceived into going into war by questionable intelligence, and those assets around the world who were disavowed, ignored, or killed after Plame’s identity became a matter of public record. Although the third might be the least discussed, it provides the only tense moments of the film; in particular the scene where a doctor (Liraz Charhi) who was used to convince her brother to defect comes to Plames’ home demanding to know what has gone wrong.
I’ve never been accused of being Watts biggest fan, but she’s used well here and does a commendable job in showcasing the character internalizing what has been done to her. Penn plays up the ego and pomposity of Wilson, but helps ground his need for the spotlight with a basic morality of doing what’s right for his country and his wife.
If the film has any real limitation its the narrow viewpoint which we’re given. The script was adapted from the book written by Wilson and Plame which gives us great insight into their ordeal. This is a strength of the film, but it also means the film doesn’t spend time on any issue not addressed in those pages.
The movie makes some vague suggestions but never really addresses the involvement of the Bush White House, other than Libby. Did it honestly believe the data or simply use it to deceive the public and get the war they were clamoring for? Did Libby act alone in outing Plame, with only the possible approval of Karl Rove (as the film suggests), or did pressure come from higher up the food chain? Was Vice President Cheney’s need to find WMDs in Iraq based on an honest fear or something far more devious? The film doesn’t have any answers to these questions.
On a related note, the choice of Penn for the role of Wilson, given his political views, adds a layer of partisanship that doesn’t hurt the film but nevertheless does frame the argument in a slightly different way. It also allows half of the country an easy out to simply dismiss a film that should be seen.
I could have done with far less of the marital troubles on-screen (particularly the couple’s trial separation late in the film), but Fair Game does what it sets out to do. It examines the effects of a series of decisions on two people at the eye of the storm. It’s a solid dramatic film strengthened by the performances of its two leads. There are a few nice touches along the way, the last of which might be the best (the redacted names in the credits of anyone whose real name couldn’t be used in the film).
Fair Game isn’t a great film. It’s far less tense than I expected from director Doug Liman, but it does work as a solid drama. And the film’s message about how information is gathered and how easily it can be misused or corrupted is an important one that people should take to heart.