As soon as I saw a trailer for Fair Game, I knew I had to see the movie because it combines all my favorite spy tropes: an intelligent heroine, government corruption, a cock-eyed conspiracy theory that turns out to be true, and bureaucratic a-holes.
Fair Game is based on the story of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), the CIA operative whose identity was outed by Bush White House officials in 2003, allegedly (read: very, very likely, but because scientists haven’t invented a way to read minds yet, kind of unprovable) in retaliation for her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), calling out George W. Bush’s erroneous State of the Union assertion that Saddam Hussein had purchased uranium yellowcake from Africa to contribute to his growing pile of nonexistent WMDs.
If you kept up with the Russian nesting doll of a scandal that was “Plamegate” seven years ago, then you know the extensive backstory. If you didn’t, Fair Game does a surprisingly good job of breaking down all the details in the first half of the film. There’s lots of clipped banter and terse walking down fluorescent-lit government halls, but the rapid pacing remains measured enough to follow.
Fair Game sticks remarkably close to what actually happened to Plame, and perhaps that’s why the second half of the film lags. Once the real Plame was outed as a CIA agent, she kept her head down for two years until the grand jury investigation began in 2005. So in order to represent that time, Fair Game transitions from an action-filled drama to a navel-gazing melodrama, as Plame and Wilson bicker over how to handle the press and whether or not to fight back against the White House, which is portraying them as traitorous nobodies out to make a buck and garner publicity.
I found either Sean Penn himself or Sean Penn’s version of Joseph Wilson to be incredibly arrogant and grating. In contrast, Watts was wonderful as Plame, if a bit hampered by some of the unnecessarily dramatic screen-writing. One scene has her sobbing as she brushes her teeth at her mother’s house, while another particularly bad one has her lying in the fetal position on a bed, soliloquizing in a monotone about how she doesn’t have a breaking point. The screenwriters all evidently attended the CW Teen Drama School of Expressing Emotion.
Then there’s Penn’s Oscar-bait scenes, which all involve shouting gradually louder and louder about sticking it to the man or rising above. Dude, you’re not even the one who got fired from the coolest job of all time. Take your NYT op-ed and go home already!
The most arresting plotline involves Plame attempting to get about 30 Iraqi nuclear scientists and their families out of Iraq before they’re either killed in the U.S. invasion or picked off by Saddam loyalists who don’t want to lose them to the Americans. This is a “can’t be confirmed or denied” storyline that may or may not have actually happened to Plame, though it is known that after her cover was blown, bad things likely befell some of her contacts who were still in the field.
A small but significant thing I appreciated about the film was that it used several minutes of actual news footage from the original Plamegate scandal. I was unaware just how vilified Plame and Wilson were, but clips of news anchors calling Plame a “mediocre agent, at best” and accusing Wilson of being a money-grubbing opportunist are harsh and really drive home how abandoned the couple felt by the government that had once commanded so much of their loyalty.
All in all, I’d say Fair Game is worth a viewing if you like political dramas (for example, if you liked Frost/Nixon, this will probably make you swoon), though it doesn’t quite deliver on the action front. It’s thoughtful in a way most current feature films are not, and it’s just a shame that the movie’s commitment to stark, honest storytelling works against it in the lackluster second half.