Film Review: Fair Game

Brisk take on how Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, diplomat Joe Wilson, react when her cover as a CIA spy is blown in the debate over the Iraq War.

Outed CIA spy Valerie Plame Wilson gets a Hollywood makeover in Fair Game, a forceful but still glossy drama based on her memoir, and one by her husband Joe Wilson. Persuasive though clearly biased, the film's big problem is that it doesn't seem to be saying anything new. The real-life angle may help draw viewers heretofore indifferent to Iraq War-themed movies, but Fair Game faces an uphill battle at the box office.

The story behind Valerie Plame Wilson (played by Naomi Watts) is fairly well-known: success as a covert CIA operative as well as a suburban wife and mother, career ruined and marriage threatened when journalist Robert Novak named her in a Washington Post column. Screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth try to flesh out her career in the first half of the film, with shadowy accounts of field work and perfunctory nods to family life in Washington, DC. The story gets more interesting when Plame Wilson's husband Joe (Sean Penn), a former ambassador, flies to Niger to research the potential sale of yellowcake, a form of enriched uranium, to Iraq. Meanwhile, Plame Wilson is named to lead the Agency's Joint Task Force on Iraq. Both Wilsons are pressured to adjust their findings to fit the demands of the Bush administration. When Joe Wilson's data is deliberately distorted, he retaliates with an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

Up to this point, Fair Game is focused and involving, even if it pretends that the Wilsons were just about the only two people standing between us and war with Iraq. Once the Bush administration, personified here primarily by "Scooter" Libby (David Andrews), starts smearing the couple, the filmmakers tend to settle for easy choices: Libby as a cold villain, Plame Wilson betrayed by heartless bureaucrats, innocent Iraqis sacrificed in vain, a gullible public easily misled. The filmmakers don't give viewers much of a chance to make up their own minds about what happened, which is fine up to a point. But as Fair Game has it, Plame Wilson resisted going public with her story for noble reasons, even though one could argue that she was simply waiting for a better time to cash in. And conflating Plame Wilson's discomfort over her career with the deaths of Iraqi families in war seems like the sort of coldly manipulative calculation a Bush official might make.

Still, it never hurts to bring to light the litany of lies that emanated from the Bush White House, or to detail the human consequences to that administration's doctrines. As an international undercover operative, Watts seems physically frail at times, but she brings a winning conviction to her performance. Penn is excellent in a role that dovetails weirdly with his public persona as a hectoring do-gooder, while the rest of the cast is never less than efficient.

Penn gets to deliver the best rationale for the film. "If they yell louder, does that make them right?" he asks during an argument, and director Doug Liman (also the film's very capable cinematographer) is confident enough to underscore the scene's ambivalence by having Penn shout his lines.