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Movie review: ‘Fair Game’ penetrates veil of spy game, dirty politics

Dennis King Published: November 19, 2010
NAOMI WATTS stars in FAIR GAME.
NAOMI WATTS stars in FAIR GAME.

As well as parting the curtain of secrecy that shrouds most Central Intelligence Agency operations, director Doug Liman’s low-keyed “Fair Game” effectively peeks into the private lives of outed spy Valerie Plame and her diplomat husband Joe Wilson after they became targets of a White House smear campaign in the months surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Relying on court-documented facts of the case, as well as private insights provided by both Plame and Wilson in subsequent books, the script by bother scribes Jez and John-Henry Butterworth attempts to balance the headline-sizzling story of political chicanery with the intimate details of the couple’s ordeal once they became pawns in a Bush administration push to sell the Iraq war.

The details of the public story will be painfully familiar to American news watchers: In 2002, Joseph Wilson, former U.S. Ambassador to Niger, was dispatched by the government to Africa to confirm reports that Iraq had purchased large quantities of yellowcake uranium that could be used to produce nuclear weapons. Wilson concluded the reports were groundless, but White House officials ignored his findings and spun the facts in favor of war.

Outraged by the administration’s distortion of his fact-finding mission, the outspoken Wilson penned a New York Times op-ed piece telling his conclusions. This clearly enraged certain administration hawks with close ties to Vice President Dick Cheney’s office (read that: Karl Rove and Lewis “Scooter” Libby).

Shortly after, Wilson’s wife, covert CIA operative Valerie Plame’s secret identity was leaked to high-profile Washington journalists, essentially ruining her effectiveness as an agent and ending her career. In the protracted investigations and trials that followed, Rove was widely quoted as saying that in the rough-and-tumble of political battle, Plame had become “fair game” for war proponents.

Liman details all this with unfussy dispatch, but his intent is more clearly to examine the fallout on the marriage, family life and careers of Plame and Wilson. In that regard, he gets yeoman support from Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, who portray the couple with compelling flesh-and-blood dimension that is necessarily absent from news reports.

Watts, a blond doppelganger for the real Plame, is effectively cool, detached yet sympathetic as her very analytical character’s world comes unraveled amid betrayal by her own government. And it’s no stretch for Penn to step into the shoes of the hot-headed, confrontational Wilson as the pesky whistle blower. Bound together against a withering media onslaught, death threats and lunatic, right-wing pundit spin, the pair’s marriage bends to the breaking point.

Liman does an admirable job of presenting political facts without diatribe and attempting to personalize the sensational story. But that scrupulous balance often results in diffuse drama as Watts must rely mainly on subtle intimations rather than big emotional gestures to animate her character. And Penn plays the brusque, blustery Wilson almost to the point of bombast.

Most surely, “Fair Game” will be judged by moviegoers through the individual prisms of their political beliefs. Still, the movie deserves credit for tackling a story of citizens having the courage to stand up to “the most powerful men in the world” and question the march to war. Indeed, a fair game is one that allows Americans to speak out against government without fear of reprisal.

- Dennis King

“Fair Game”

PG-13
1:44
3 stars
Starring: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Ty Burrell, Sam Shepard, Bruce McGill
(Some language)