Were it not for the fact that Sean Penn and Naomi Watts turn in a pair of top-notch performances as columnist/politico Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, a covert CIA field operative, Fair Game would have all the gripping suspense of an Urdu 101 class at Langley.
Based on a pair of memoirs by the couple, Doug Liman’s film has all the requisite elements to make it a suspenseful and nervy real-life thriller. Think The Spy Who Was Dragged in Out of the Cold and Publicly Outed by Morally Bankrupt Partisan Ideologues.
That’s what happened to Plame when conservative columnist Robert Novak, acting on a tip from George W. Bush’s White House, penned a column about her husband in The Washington Post on July 14, 2003. The column included the sentence “Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction,” which effectively destroyed Plame’s career. Novak was responding to Wilson’s own New York Times op-ed piece about a recent fact-finding trip to Niger where he discovered all those centrifuges and yellowcake uranium tonnage (remember those?) that served as the White House’s casus belli in Iraq were total fabrications.
As Penn plays him, Wilson is a courageous patriot, effectively damning the White House as having lied to the American people about the reasons for invading Iraq. Wilson’s decision to do so was inarguably noble and brave, but the resultant blowback from the White House, Novak’s column, and the Republican attack machine nearly destroyed their marriage and had them both branded as traitors.
Cutting between Plame’s doomed covert ops in Iraq – she was helping Iraqi nuclear scientists and their families escape to the U.S. even as “shock and awe” was flattening their neighborhoods – and the war of words on the home front, Liman keeps things moving along at a frantic pace. Still, this is recent and public history, and Fair Game, which both fascinates and infuriates, comes across as little more than a footnote in an ever-lengthening list (thanks, Wikileaks!) of the Bush White House’s sordid actions leading up to and beyond the invasion of Iraq. Watts, who plays Plame as a sturdy spook micromanaging both her family and her covert ops, and Penn own the film; it’s a master class in submerging yourself into your character.
But that doesn’t make it a great film, just a very good one.