Reviewed at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
While not as freshly ripped from the nonfiction bestseller list as “The Social Network,” Doug Liman’s “Fair Game” is another film that transmutes real life events to the screen before they’ve had an opportunity to comfortably settle into something more like our idea of the set past. Adding to that tension is the presence of big ol’ movie stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn as Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson, the CIA operative and former ambassador who were tossed around in the jetwash of our country’s rush toward war with Iraq. They’re playing shinier, smoothed-out versions of people who were part of a messy, ugly affair that unfolded on the smaller screens of cable news networks, and the story that screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have assembled, pulled from Plame’s book “Fair Game” and Wilson’s “The Politics of Truth,” is a wobbly but initially captivating mix of streamlined, dramatized headlines and a Hollywoodized filling in of the blanks.
It’s in the latter mode that the fleetly directed film operates best and most comfortably, showing highly competent, highly coiffed covert agent Valerie on missions in Kuala Lumpur and Cairo, tracking down and bringing in possible informants with unflinching cool (“You have no idea what we can or cannot do,” she tells one, less a threat than a warning) — aspects of her past the real Plame obviously is not allowed to publicly discuss. Home in their comfortable DC house, her husband Joe wakes to her tossing in her sleep because of troubled dreams. At at dinner party with their friends, he gets into a fight with someone who asks him about, essentially, a Juan Williams scenario — how he’d feel if he saw nervous, praying Muslim men in traditional garb on his plane. We don’t see the exchange, in a nice touch, only Valerie chiding him for calling the man a “racist pussy” in the car ride home.
Valerie and Joe are struggling to fight the good fight, and trying to raise their children and hold together their marriage at the same time. Their knowledge and access to information can be a burden for both — Valerie because she can’t share it, Joe because of his impatience with others’ lack of it. As the story unfolds, the power of information and, more importantly, of choosing the information one prefers to pay attention to becomes central to the action. Because he was once stationed there, Joe is volunteered for a CIA mission to Niger to look into the reported purchase by Saddam Hussein of large amounts of yellowcake uranium. His report, that it seems highly unlikely, is less convenient to the White House (David Andrews standing in as a smirking Scooter Libby) than a contrasting one from another operative who insists a known purchase of aluminum tubes could only be for the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.
“Fair Game” draws a persuasive portrait of a Washington where national and self-interest are in constant collision, with people only willing to help others as long as it does nothing to get in the way of their own careers. There’s a distinct gap between the public record, coming by way of the talking heads that get characters’ occasional attention on TVs glimpsed in bars, airports and hotel gyms, and what we see happening in the halls of government buildings. Which may be why, when Valerie is outed by the Washington Post (the role journalists played in the affair is left in the background — there’s no doubt in the film that the act is direct retaliation for Joe’s editorials about Niger) and all doors are immediately shut to her, “Fair Game” runs aground.
While Joe fights for his and his wife’s credibility in the media, Valerie tries to come to terms with being shut out of the world she was so devoted to — working your way through an imperfect system, it seems, is better than not having access to it at all. After the well-earned, righteous anger on behalf of the wronged pair fades, their personal struggles and estrangement, with her choosing stoic silence while he takes on all comers, can’t help but seem meager in comparison to the urgency that came before. Watts and Penn are perfectly fine in their roles, but “Fair Game” starts not as a portrait of a working DC marriage but as something larger — when it closes in on the home life of the beleaguered couple, we’re just not as invested in whether the two can make things work. Having stingingly shown how we careened into a war without the evidence to justify it, “Fair Game” is undone by its own true story source material, which can offer little consolation or closure, an absence that’s sharper thanks to the slickness and scope of the story that’s preceded it.
“Fair Game” will open in limited release November 5th.