November 19, 2010

Fair Game

Rove says Spicoli is "fair game"

Grade: B

Director: Doug Liman

Starring: Naomi Watts and Sean Penn

Running Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

I have no idea whether the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame led to either the deaths of Iraqi nuclear scientists seeking asylum in the U.S. or them bringing their talents to the highest terrorist state bidder. However, partisan leanings notwithstanding, discerning absolute truth is not the proper yardstick by which to judge Fair Game, which dramatizes the run-up and aftermath to “Plamegate.”

Instead, judge the film for what it is: a part-procedural, part-polemic that shines a personal light on a very public affair. Between the thriller tropes that open the film and the sermonizing that ends it, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, ironically) ably contextualizes the Plame episode’s place amid the Bush administration’s efforts to conjure a justification for Iraq war. Moreover, the film’s strongest suit is its portrait of an already schizophrenic marriage – dinner parties at home one night, secret flights to Kuala Lumpur the next – put under the increased strain of worldly events and the politics of personal destruction.

Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script, inspired by a pair of unsurprisingly self-serving books written by Plame and Wilson, casts Plame as a virtual Double-O agent, hop-scotching the globe in search of terrorists. Meanwhile, Wilson, a former U.N. ambassador during the Clinton years, wiles away his days hustling the occasional advisory odd-job when not branding dinner guests who dare express the slightest bit of post-Sept. 11 apprehension as racists.

What happens next is well-chronicled: the CIA (perhaps upon Plame’s suggestion, perhaps not) sends Wilson on a fact-finding trip to Niger to investigate rumors the African nation sold tons of yellow-cake uranium to Iraq. Despite Wilson’s debunking, the allegation finds its way in to the president’s State of the Union address and is used as a justification for the impending war. Wilson penned a 2003 op-ed in the New York Times publicizing his contrary findings, whereupon the White House – represented here by Vice-President Chief of Staff Scooter Libby (David Andrews) and Karl Rove (Adam LeFevre) – embarks on a smear campaign against Wilson that reveals Plame as a covert CIA operative and effectively kills her career.

One problem with the latter half of Fair Game is that it strays so little from the public record, lacking much-needed nuance in its depiction of post-outing events. Indeed, several days after having seen the film, I am struck by how little of the film still lingers with me. Wilson and Plame’s carefully crafted backstory transitions into a series of dramatized media appearances and lecture tours. Wilson – with a lion’s mane and a roar to match – almost manically traverses the countryside finally armed a cause he so desperately desired. For her part, Plame mourns the loss of her professional livelihood by tackling the travails of hands-on motherhood.

Despite its minor flaws, Fair Game remains both intriguing and eye-opening, thanks largely to a uniformly solid cast that smoothes over some of the script’s rougher patches. Before Penn gets to dust off his Willie Stark finger-wag for some late-film speechifying, he manages to couch Wilson as both heroic and flawed – after all, a newspaper article he wrote without his CIA-employed wife’s sanction about his national security is what triggered the events that led to Plame’s eventual outing.

However, the unquestionable headliner is a pitch-perfect performance from the ever-reliable, still-underappreciated Watts. She imbues Plame with both emotional vulnerability and steely resolve without a bevy of award-baiting scenes.

Some are rushing to brand Fair Game as this generation’s All the President’s Men. A more apt comparison, both stylistically and thematically, would be Michael Witterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo and A Mighty Heart, both tales of individual tragedy that play out against the backdrop of the so-called “war of terror.” In all three films, the personal outlasts the preaching.

Neil Morris

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