By Gary Murray
Starring Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and Ty Burrell
Written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth
Directed by Doug Liman
Running time 104
MPAA Rating PG-13
Selig Film Rating Cable
During the build-up to the Iraq War, there were massive failures of intelligence. With different parts of the government wanting different outcomes from facts, details that proved one side over another were coincidentally covered up or lost. While some lobbied for a full-front attack others wanted to give sanctions more time. Caught in the middle of this mess was Valerie Plame who was (according to differing newscasts) either a CIA super spy or just a glorified secretary in the Agency. In the new movie Fair Game, the creators take the former position.
The film starts in the days after 9/11 and the CIA playing catch-up. Valerie (Naomi Watts) is a field agent playing different parts in different countries, getting foreigners to agree to supply intelligence to the US government. After a few successful missions, she is asked to run the budding Iraq covert operations. We see that much of what the CIA knows about the country is based on hearsay and outdated intel. One of the big contentions is about a huge shipment of yellow-cake uranium from Africa to Sadam. Since her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) knows the area well, Valerie suggest that he be sent to investigate.
While this is going on, the Vice President’s office begins to build a case for war. They start to hand pick different reports and facts to create a case that Sadam was on the verge of having WMDs with the US as the main target. Even though many in the CIA know that the justification for war is wrong, the warmongers prevail.
After the initial attack, no weapons are found and the blame game begins. Joe realizes that his report is being co-opted, he writes an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times. The retaliation is a leak where Valerie Plame is outed as a CIA spy. This destroys her career and puts her family and her contacts in grave danger.
The film really works in the last act when Valerie and Joe are up against the wall and have to basically take on the rest of the world to restore their honor. They lose almost everything when taking on the White House. There are some true moments of emotion as the two have to make decisions that will impact not only their lives but those of their families.
Director Doug Liman truly uses a scattershot approach to telling the tale in Fair Game. He takes every tool in the directing toolbox, giving us steady-cam shots jammed against extreme close-up next to that shaking camera cinema verite then mixed with actual news footage. While the hodgepodge way of making the film might be visually appealing to some, it does not make for a coherent film.
Writers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth build a film that is part All the Presidents Men and part bad melodrama. The most honest thing in Fair Game is the depiction of spies, not as James Bond figures with shoot outs and sex but as individuals who easily blend in and coerce weak people to help out in covert causes.
This is an Oscar push for Naomi Watts and she just may get it with Fair Game. She shows some subtlety in a role that was put all over the 24 hour news. If feels as if one is watching a real person rather than an actor doing an interpretation. One can see how she can get people to do her bidding just by being nice and reasonable.
Sean Penn is all over the place with his interpretation of Joe Wilson. At times he a manic and others he is the calm family man. There are moments where he grabs ahold of the scenery and chews it for all it is worth, overacting to the point of parody. For a guy who can hide inside a character with a solid degree of believably, here he just all over the place.
Fair Game is a very liberal interpretation of the facts of the 2003 New York Times op-Ed piece. It is based on the books written by Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson so it naturally makes them out to be the heroes and victims of the system. The actual truth of this incident is probably something for future historians to decide. Liberals will flock to Fair Game just to have another bashing of George Bush and conservatives will just roll their eyes over what is now another part of history. The film itself, for all it posturing, is kind of a dull exercise. The way I look at Fair Game is much the same way I look at a couple breaking-up. There is her side, his side, and the truth. With this movie, it feels as if one is only getting one side.