In a time when an ugly right-wing rumor mill has been undermining a presidency through non-stop insinuations, it’s nice to see a film like Fair Game. It's not a great film, but it serves as a good reminder that not too long ago we actually did have a presidential administration that engaged in sneaky, probably criminal, tactics that infected decision-making in the governmental bureaucracy. It was in power for most of the last decade.
In 2002, when the C.I.A. had former ambassador Joe Wilson investigate a rumor that Niger sold uranium to Iraq, he reported back that the transaction couldn’t have taken place. He was understandably shocked when he heard president George W. Bush mention that very rumor as fact in the State of the Union address in support of invading Iraq. Outraged, he wrote an editorial in The New York Times saying that Bush and his administration had distorted facts in order to support a war of choice. But his outrage wouldn’t end there.
His wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover C.I.A. agent, deep into missions of sensitive and dangerous natures in the Middle East. Imagine her surprise to wake up one morning to see her cover blown on the morning news. Some high-ranking Bush official, or perhaps several, had leaked her identity in an attempt to discredit her husband and to quiet anti-war sentiment. After all, bombs had already fallen on Baghdad. Meanwhile a smear campaign began to launch its attack on this family.
In Fair Game, Naomi Watts plays Plame. She’s a capable career agent and analyst, working on gathering intelligence and helping defectors. When she is revealed to the world as an agent, she is naturally distraught. Watts plays these scenes with great nuance and care. What could have easily become weepy histrionics is nicely tuned on a realistic level. We sense her pain written across her face, in the tiniest shift of her expression, in the small shine of tears sitting in her eyes.
She’s well matched with Sean Penn, who plays Joe Wilson as a principled man who speaks his mind, sometimes to the detriment of those around him. Penn’s performance threatens to overpower the film with his capital-A acting, but it ends up being a nice, controlled smolder of a performance. The deep lines in Penn’s forehead accentuate the deep anger both feel towards the situation.
What’s best about the film is the way it mostly sidesteps easy political moralizing in order to focus on a couple in crisis. Wilson and Plame are essentially a typical suburban married couple with a two kids, two cars, and a nice house. Though they find themselves in the middle of an unexpected situation with grave consequences, the tidy script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth steers clear of making Wilson and Plame left-wing martyrs. Instead, the focus remains on who these two people are and what makes them tick. These are real people who are being pushed to the breaking point by forces far beyond their control.
Director Doug Liman, who directed the very good spy film The Bourne Identity, shoots this film with a tense, nervous camera that enlivens the domestic scenes with a jittery energy. This style extends into the moments in which the film’s scope opens up onto the stage of international intrigue and narrows into the winding halls of Washington D.C.’s powerful shadows. Of particular interest are scenes with the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby. As played by David Andrews, Libby is a conniving administration tool, ruthlessly bullying the administration’s spin into the decision-making bureaucracy made up of studious public servants.
This is a nice film, though it feels a bit more dispensable than it should. It’s a film of fine performances and calmly unraveling anger. It’s compelling without being overly insistent, but I couldn’t help but wish for a bit more power behind its punches. This is an enraging film, but it fades faster than I would have expected. It’s just a bit too clinical to resonate as deeply as it could.