In a moment of frustration toward the beginning of Doug Liman’s Fair Game, Valerie Plame points out the flaws in an overzealous CIA analyst’s interpretation of data. “Somebody had to ask the question,” says a collected Plame as she reveals evidence that shatters to pieces one of the popular arguments for invading Iraq. This moment of clarity is a microcosm for the film’s overall message and for the whole country’s frustration at an administration that lead a nation astray by providing answers before taking time to ask the questions. Americans were mislead, lied to, and ruled by fear during the years under the Bush administration and no clearer evidence may exist than the mistreatment of CIA-agent Valerie Plame.
Fair Game is based on the true story of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) who get caught up in a chaotic and uncertain post-9/11 government. Plame works undercover for the CIA investigating Middle Eastern intelligence and has been specially tasked with finding evidence of nuclear weapons manufacturing. Plame’s husband Joe Wilson is a former Ambassador to Gabon and has experience in Africa so the agency asks him to investigate whether an illegal trade of yellow cake Uranium has occurred from Niger to Iraq. When Wilson returns with no evidence and the opinion that such a trade never occurred, he is essentially ignored by the administration as the original piece of evidence is used by President Bush in his State of the Union as a reason to invade Iraq. This infuriates Wilson and inspires him to write an article for the New York Times entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Iraq.”
The article causes a stir in the Bush Administration and starts a search for a controversy to temporarily distract the country and discredit Wilson. This results in Scooter Libby revealing Valerie Plame’s identity to the press, which destroys all of her covert operations, causes her to lose her job and any government connections, and results in the disappearance of several Iraqi scientists that Plame was helping escape Saddam’s regime. It also causes a splinter in Plame and Wilson’s relationship as they struggle to maintain a sense of familial oneness in the midst of national turmoil.
The script combined with Naomi Watts' fiery persona shows Valerie Plame to be a very capable spy, which discounts many of the theories that Plame was an unimportant sideshow within the CIA. Liman takes no qualms in vilifying the Bush Administration by using stock footage of Bush and Cheney’s speeches edited to ominous music and shocked reaction shots. Liman makes a film for the current generation and fully expects his audience to have some background information about the events. The narrative is tightly scripted and fast moving which gives the simultaneous pleasure of a thrilling spectacle and an intellectually challenging political mystery.
Watts and Penn are fantastic in two very different leading turns. Penn’s Wilson exists at more varying emotional extremes as his enormous ego leads him to wear his emotions on his sleeve. Watts is more reserved and restrained in one of her better performances that acts as a perfect balance to Penn. There is also a fantastic supporting turn from the legendary Sam Shepard as Plame’s broken, advice giving father.
The one place the film does not succeed as efficiently is in the resolution of the conflicting relationship between Wilson and Plame. Liman seems to speed up their conclusion in order to get to the film’s final call to action. That call to action is an important one, however.