Fair Game (PG-13)
The latest of this year's films to examine current events in the wake of 9/11 is Fair Game, directed by Doug Liman of the Bourne series. The movie relates the exposure of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame by members of the Bush administration following her husband Joe Wilson's 2003 New York Times op-ed piece debunking evidence of weapons of mass destruction as justification for the United States to invade Iraq. While viewers familiar with recent history might be able to predict how the narrative action will progress in Fair Game (the title refers to Karl Rove's having reportedly called Wilson's wife "fair game,") they will still be enthralled and surprised, thanks to Liman's crisp, suspenseful filmmaking. More importantly, they'll be drawn in by the underlying story of this inside-the-Beltway couple’s marriage, which heads into a tailspin after Wilson does what he thinks is right, knowing that doing so could threaten his wife's career — and his family's safety.
Fair Game is based on memoirs by both Plame and Wilson, and, as a result, we come to understand some of the finer internal points of this political drama. For instance, Wilson's argument against weapons of mass destruction was based not so much on his wife's CIA findings, when she was tasked to investigate the matter in Iraq, but on a trip he made to Niger pro bono in 2002 at the request of the CIA, to assess whether the country had sold and transported yellowcake uranium to Iraq. He decided that such a sale and transport not only did not occur, but unequivocally could not have happened without the rest of the world knowing about it. We also learn that Plame enlisted U.S. citizens to convince their relatives in Iraq to cooperate with her in gathering information about Saddam Hussein's no-longer-existent WMD program. In compensation, they and their families were to be given safe haven in the United States. But when the shock-and-awe campaign began and Plame’s cover was blown, she was relieved of her duties in Iraq, leaving her informants out to dry, and leaving Plame tortured by her own guilt and pleas for help from the U.S. relatives she’d convinced to cooperate with her.
Naomi Watts, one of the most talented actresses of our time, does her best work to date in this role. She is phenomenal playing a mother (her twins with Wilson were three years old at the time) juggling a career, albeit one that requires covert operations and regular international travel in service to her country. She exudes the tension of a person pulled in multiple directions without hitting us over the head with her struggle. Sean Penn plays her husband, and it’s a delight to watch him — gray at the temples and wrinkled about the eyes — playing a more behind-the-scenes stay-at-home parent, trying to keep his political passions in check for the sake of family, though, ultimately, he can't keep silent. We all know Penn's left-leaning politics and his tendency to drill sometimes too deeply on the issues; here, he just plays the part. Sam Shepard, who has a small role as Plame's father, serves the film well as an emotional compass; he withholds just enough, his advice satisfying.
Fair Game offers a bit too much Michael Moore-style Monday-morning quarterbacking in its last few minutes, relying on news footage of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who took the fall for the administration's outing of Plame, and is, at last, overtly partisan in its wrap-up message. I wish the movie had ended with multiple portraits of the players' complicated mixed motives, which would have enhanced further our takeaway from recent historic events, and allowed us to learn from them even more.