Film Review: “Fair Game”

by Jason LeRoy on November 5, 2010

Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as Joe Wilson in FAIR GAME

Check out our review after the jump.

Fair Game

starring Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Noah Emmerich, Brooke Smith, Tom McCarthy, Ty Burrell

directed by Doug Liman

rated PG-13

This is the kind of movie that liberal America needs now: a nostalgic stroll down memory lane to the days when we were all smugly united in our righteous outrage against the Bush administration. There’s something perversely comforting about it. And in lieu of the “shellacking” we received around the nation on Tuesday (except here in never-bluer California), Fair Game is a bracing reminder of a time when people were furious at the president and his administration for actual life-and-death reasons, not utterly fabricated nonsense about birth certificates and Muslims and socialism.

Fair Game is a suspenseful drama about the plight of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), the CIA operative whose cover was blown, life turned into chaos, and marriage nearly destroyed because of a White House-based campaign to discredit her and her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson (a potbellied, cigar-puffing Sean Penn).

When Scooter Libby (a suitably despicable David Andrews) and his team repeatedly attempted to coerce the CIA into producing cherry-picked intelligence indicating that Iraq was developing or harboring weapons of mass destruction, Plame and Wilson stood squarely in the way; and so Karl “Shitbird” Rove (Adam LeFevre, whose Rove getup drew laughter from the audience) did his usual “changing the story” thing and made it about their lack of credibility.

Ultimately, their professional respect and livelihood were among the first casualties of the war. In turn, this placed great strain on their marriage, particularly because each responds quite differently to these events: while Valerie remains silent out of respect for the CIA, Joe becomes a bit of a media whore, running from press outlet to press outlet, launching his own one-man war against the Bush administration.

In this regard, Fair Game is really more of a domestic drama than a suspense film. While it is directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), it is not by any means an action film. It gets the espionage stuff out of the way fairly quickly; once Plame’s cover is blown, it becomes a pressure-cooker character study of a marriage going through the media wringer while being directly targeted by the most powerful people in the world.

The role of Valerie Plame plays greatly to Watts’ strengths as an actor; she is at her best when playing steely career women who unexpectedly find themselves facing great odds. She makes us understand why Valerie’s allegiance to the CIA would prevent her from initially speaking out about the injustice perpetrated against her, and we feel her agony at being suddenly and dishonorably stripped of her life’s purpose.

As Joe Wilson, Penn comes humorously close to playing himself. The scenes of Wilson raging against Bush and Cheney on cable news programs could just as easily have been lifted from Penn’s own press clips during that period. But ultimately he redeems what could have become an indulgent performance with the moving heartache and loss he evokes during the breakdown of Plame and Wilson’s marriage.

Fair Game is a taut, compelling drama about two patriots who suddenly find themselves on the opposite end of the new political paradigm. This isn’t actually the first film to be based on this story; Vera Farmiga gave a memorably unhinged performance as a Valerie Plame character in Nothing But the Truth, which fictionalized the Judith Miller aspect of the Plame affair (Miller was played by Kate Beckinsale; she isn’t mentioned in Fair Game). This is a great and infuriating story, and deserves to be seen, now more than ever.

RIYL: female-driven dramas about espionage and politics

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