"Fair Game" is an unintentionally perplexing film. Strongly written about a potent and still-relevant subject, smartly directed by Doug Liman and forcefully acted by Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and a carefully selected supporting cast, it seems to be doing everything right but still doesn't manage to leave you with a completely satisfied feeling.
Certainly, "Fair Game's" subject matter is inherently dramatic. It relates the ripped-from-the-headlines story of Valerie Plame (Watts), a covert CIA officer who found her cover blown and her professional life destroyed by "the most powerful men in the history of the world."
According to the script by Jez Butterworth and his brother John-Henry, that would be the men in the Bush White House, key operatives like Karl Rove and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, men who placed Plame in their cross hairs to divert the public's attention from her husband, Joe Wilson (Penn). He'd had the temerity to suggest that the administration was in effect cooking the books and ignoring critical facts in its zeal to invade Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
With Hussein now long dead and the American military focus shifted to Afghanistan, this may sound like so much ancient history, but the reverse is true. Now that we know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the extent to which we were manipulated into a needless war that continues to wreak havoc in our world is more rather than less disturbing, like a perpetual nightmare that gets worse each time it replays in our minds.
In fact, the hitch in "Fair Game" is that the nakedness of what was publicly done to Plame and Wilson may be more compelling than the filmmakers counted on. They chose to focus much of their efforts on how having the White House gunning for the couple affected their personal relationship, but they shouldn't have.
Though that dynamic is of interest, it is frankly dwarfed by the outrage you have to feel at both the misuse of governmental power and the pro-war propaganda offensive, and that unbalances the film. The way that Plame was considered, in Rove's words to Chris Matthews, "fair game" in a world of brutal realpolitik is so disturbing it overwhelms the personal drama that accompanied it.
Certainly the first time we see Plame, in the typically brisk and to-the-point interlude that opens the film, she is the picture of steely covert operative competence, handling a tricky situation in Kuala Lumpur like it was the kind of thing she did every day. Which in fact, it pretty much was.
Back home in Washington, Plame pretends to even her close friends that she is a committed venture capitalist. If she is close-mouthed, her husband is the opposite. A night out with other couples in a bar on the October day in 2001 when the war in Afghanistan began shows him to be — and clearly not for the first time — a trouble-making loose cannon, a self-righteous individual with a noticeable temper management problem.
Their personalities may differ, but "Fair Game" takes pains to portray Plame and Wilson as loving parents as well as partners in a good marriage. He is trying to ramp up a consulting business while she punches a CIA time clock, even getting promoted to chief of operations for the Iraqi branch of the Counterproliferation Division.
In that capacity, Plame has to deal with persistent pressure from "across the river," i.e. the vice president's office, to prove that Iraq is hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon and had in fact bought huge amounts of yellowcake uranium from the African nation of Niger. One of her associates wonders if Wilson, once the U.S. ambassador to Gabon, could investigate.
Plame is uncertain — it's unpaid work in a hellhole — but when she mentions it to her husband he agrees and comes away convinced that the purported sale could not possibly have happened. When Wilson later hears President Bush mention the uranium deal in a televised speech as if it were fact, he is so shocked he writes an outraged op-ed in the New York Times headlined "What I Didn't Find in Africa." At which point all hell breaks loose.
Fearing that the column will damage the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Libby (expertly played by David Andrews with the darkness of Harry Potter's nemesis, Voldemort), changes the story. Acting in concert with Rove ( Adam LeFevre), the pair decides to focus on Wilson and his relationship with Plame. As a result, White House-friendly columnist Robert Novak outs Plame in an article and everyone around her, especially her colleagues in the CIA, abandons her and runs for cover.
Because this story is so real and so disturbing, it makes other parts of "Fair Game" weak by contrast. This is especially true of an invented subplot about an Iraqi nuclear scientist and his family. The problem with this segment, which had to be invented because Plame's real work is still classified by the CIA, is not that it is fake but that it feels tidy and manufactured on the screen even without our being told that that is the case.
Though the differing ways Plame and Wilson responded to the White House attack and how those differences impacted their marriage is true, it just isn't compelling. This despite excellent work by "Bourne Identity" director Liman (who did his own cinematography) in his best "All the President's Men" mode and one of the finest performances of Watts' career.
Rather than concern for the private lives of those acted upon, what we feel is outrage about the public act, and no amount of good work can change that.