Fair Game (2010)
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Doug Liman‘s “Fair Game” tells the well-documented story of Valerie Plame, the undercover CIA agent who, in an act of petty vengeance by slighted politician “Scooter” Libby, was outed to the public, and blamed for a lot of the non-committal answers from Washington regarding the lack of WMDs in Iraq back in 2003. The woman was callously fired from the CIA, lost her active cases (resulting in the deaths of overseas operatives), and pilloried by the press. It wasn’t until she came forward about the truth of the matter, and Libby was finally tracked down as the proper culprit, that her life began to improve. During those few months, though, Plame must have lived a horrific life of accusation and ostricization.
The problem with Lima’s film version of these events is not that he fudges history or characters; indeed, Liman and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth go out of their way to make sure the historic timelines are correct, and every details of aluminum tubes, Karl Rove, uranium reports from Niger, and Bush administration lies, are all included. What’s more, the actors give their all, and Naomi Watts gives her intense best as a powersuited businesswoman with some real, real-life authority. Where the film stumbles is actually making the characters around Plame more interesting that she is. Plame must have gone through hell with the harassment, and it’s never fun to be fired, especially if it’s through no fault of your own. But “Fair Game,” about halfway through, shift focus away from Plame onto her outspoken activist husband Joe (Sean Penn).
Joe is the type of person who can’t help but make political corrections to friends at parties, makes sure to pronounce the word “Niger” correctly, and who writes angry articles about the sorry state of American politics. He’s the one who is tortured by never knowing where his wife is going, and tortured further by knowing he’s never allowed to ask. There’s a dynamite scene in which Joe confronts his wife in a stairwell about where she’s going, and just as quickly realizes what an asinine question he’s asking. Penn brings out such drama and personality in Joe, that it actually begins to eclipse Valerie’s drama almost altogether.
Valerie is a put-upon mom and family woman, but her children exit in this film as distractions. She is a hardworking agent who makes smart decisions, and knows how to plays dangerous situations, as when she needs to extract a famed Iraqi professor from the country, but we spend too much time with her, and not enough time with her work. It’s almost too bad that we knew Plame’s fate in this issue. Had we followed her spy work as if it were a thriller, only to find that some people would out her unexpectedly, it would have played better.
Why is it Joe feels more human and interesting than Valerie? Maybe it’s because Joe represents the outrage we all felt over the lies surrounding the war. Joe is the one who actually took action in the face of injustice. Joe was the one who used his smarts and his personality to escape the position he was in. Valerie was an effective agent, but was rendered powerless by the machinations of the horrible Scooter Libby. It was Joe who managed to do the bootstrap pulling.
So we have a film with some good performances that accurately depicts a shameful bout of recent history. As a thriller, it doesn’t work so well, and as a character study, it’s a little unfocussed. As a film, it’s perfectly decent, and I think the history lesson will be important to many viewers.