Figuring anybody cold and diabolical enough to join the C.I.A. deserves whatever they’ve got coming, I didn’t pay much attention to the Valerie Plame spy scandal when it hit the front pages in 2003. But Fair Game, with Naomi Watts as the suburban housewife with twins who was also a covert intelligence operative playing a big role in the outbreak of the war in Iraq, clears up the murky facts and shines a klieg light on the dark, shadowy corridors of the George Bush White House. The story takes on a vital new importance.
Plame, the attractive blond secret agent who made a fool out of Dick Cheney after disclosing the truth about the fact that there were no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, and her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), a former ambassador to Niger under President Clinton who dispelled the false rumors circulated by the State Department that Niger was selling uranium to Saddam Hussein to build a nuclear bomb, were labeled traitors. When the White House declared war on Iraq and ignored Joe’s investigative reports that no uranium purchase ever took place, he wrote a New York Times editorial about the lies the Bush-Cheney administration was feeding the American public and all hell broke loose. Retaliating against her husband’s disagreement with the government, the Bush gang leaked Valerie’s secret C.I.A. status to the Washington press, destroying her career, endangering her life, and nearly wrecking her marriage.
Defending her integrity after so many of her informants in the Middle East were promised jobs in the U.S. and protection for their families, then deserted by the State Department, she took a long time to lick her wounds and follow her husband’s advice to speak up in Congress. Valerie and Joe each wrote books, and the result was a blizzard of political articles that reversed the world’s opinion of America’s illegal invasion of Iraq, plunging a big chunk of the Bush administration into Congressional ethics investigations and criminal indictments, or landing them in jail. Valerie Plame ended up a heroine in pearls, and the Bush administration remains to many a disgrace that polarized the nation and slaughtered the economy.
Fair Game attempts to open the file on this ugly and complex chapter in American history with a steady stream of revelations, but while the result is politically sobering, it is also cinematically awkward.
Full of crypto-C.I.A. jargon that only succeeds in confusing the audience, the script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth hits the ground running, with Valerie leaving the house at 3:45 a.m., saying she’s going to Cleveland and ending up in Amman, leaving instructions on Post-Its. When a scene finally arrives in which overdue explanations are declared, everyone talks at once, rendering coherence impossible. The actors have all been indulged by director Doug Liman to mumble. Important interrogations of Iraqi weapons experts are infuriatingly garbled, C.I.A. motivations and strategy unexplained. The C.I.A. flies into damage-assessment mode, covering for the White House by firing their best spy, with the lives of her 15 top sources in Baghdad hanging in the balance; the people who trusted her accuse her of betrayal; the press has a field day; and the F.B.I. launches a criminal probe to reveal the identity of the culprit on Capitol Hill who leaked the classified information about Valerie. Scooter Libby? Karl Rove? Dick Armitage? While Valerie Plame becomes “fair game” (hence the title), the list of suspects who broadsided her add up to the ingredients of a top-notch espionage thriller, but her escape from the C.I.A. building is nothing more than a ludicrous restaging of Angelina Jolie’s same scene in Salt.
Naomi Watts is credible, and Sean Penn is battered and über-intense, but no real electricity or suspense builds, even when their lives are in jeopardy and their marriage in shards. Her case, corrupted by a troubled administration of meatheads and distorted by the press, became a good example of America’s long history of promising democracy to the disenfranchised and then taking it back. The Bush gang falsified evidence supporting the theory that Iraq was ready to nuke us, then coerced the C.I.A. into rubber-stamping the lies. Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson were in the middle; everything they stood for was on the line. Her redemption is a story worth telling and Fair Game is an important exposé of corrupt political power gone toxic. It’s good enough that it deserves to be better.
Running time 106 minutes
Written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth
Directed by Doug Liman
Starring Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Ty Burrell, Sam Shepard