Is the time right for a movie about the 2003 Valerie Plame–Joseph Wilson smack down? So many Washington scandals have transpired since then that "Fair Game," based on memoirs by both Plame and Wilson, and starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, might seem like old news.
I suppose this is true if timeliness is gauged in direct proportion to our collective near-amnesia of news going back more than a few years (months? days?). But the Wilsons' ordeal should not be relegated to the scrapheap of scandals past, if only because the past, to paraphrase something William Faulkner once said, isn't even past.
This is not to say that "Fair Game," directed by Doug Liman and written by the brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, is an outstanding piece of political moviemaking. Preachy, sketchy, disjunctive, and with a blistery, solarized sheen that makes it look microwaved rather than photographed, "Fair Game" is a movie that for the most part trades on the Wilsons' notoriety instead of delving into the heart of it.
Plame was a veteran CIA officer whose cover was blown in 2003 by the conservative columnist Robert Novak after her ambassador husband, Wilson, who had been sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate a possible nuclear weapons link to Saddam Hussein, responded to distorted misinformation in the Bush administration's rapid ramp up to war with an op-ed piece in The New York Times titled "What I Didn't Find in Africa."
Wilson had been the last American diplomat in Iraq when bombing commenced under George H.W. Bush, who subsequently called him "a true American hero." The second President Bush took a far dimmer view of Wilson, who was smeared as a headline-grabbing turncoat. Plame was mischaracterized as a bit player in the CIA. In fact, as "Fair Game" makes clear, she was much more than that. The leaks that led to her outing very likely put many of her covert contacts in mortal danger. (The leaks eventually resulted in the conviction of Dick Cheney's chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby – well played in the film by David Andrews – on charges of obstruction of justice.)
Liman is trying to frame "Fair Game" as both a political thriller and a marital thriller. As tensions mount, the marriage, which includes two children, frays. It's as if we're watching "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" with WMDs (or, rather, the absence of them).
Wilson is a tough nut, and his high-tension rectitude, which certainly got the goat of the Bush administration, also wears down Plame, who, unlike him, couldn't retaliate on television and in print. (Because of security concerns, even her memoir, also called "Fair Game," was heavily redacted.)
At the same time, at the height of the scandal, Plame and Wilson posed together in Vanity Fair in their Jaguar convertible, she camouflaged in head scarf and dark glasses. This brazen gesture is barely touched on in the movie. If Liman had connected the couple in that photo with the indignant twosome of his film, he might have succeeded in creating more than a passable piece of politico grandstanding.
Plame's profession was a mystery to her friends, and the details of it were kept secret even from Wilson. Did she, on some level, relish her role as a home-grown Mata Hari? We never really find out.
Only once, in a scene where Plame explains how she maintains her cover, does the film allude to an essential doubleness in her personality. "You have to know why you're lying and never forget the truth," she calmly explains. If only Liman had reconciled that Plame with the taunting model in the Jaguar and with the suburban mom – now that would have been a great character. [Editor's note: The original version omitted the word "never" from Valerie Plame's quote.]
Naomi Watts settles for semi-inscrutability while Penn, engaging as he is, is encouraged, particularly toward the end, to deliver his performance from the lectern. Liman doesn't seem to understand that the outrage in this movie speaks for itself. It's more than enough that the Wilsons were punished and pilloried for telling the truth. We don't need to see them sanctified by righteousness. Grade: B-
• Rated PG-13 for some language.
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