By Ann Hornaday
Friday, November 5, 2010
Naomi Watts delivers an uncanny portrayal of former CIA operative Valerie Plame in “Fair Game,” a crackling political thriller that deftly navigates the knife edge between all-too-familiar recent history and more universal personal drama. As Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, Sean Penn turns in a similarly skillful performance, his own impulsive, occasionally fiery temperament harmonizing well with Wilson’s own polarizing persona. Viewers who considered avoiding “Fair Game” because of a distaste for ax-grinding or score-settling needn’t worry. For the most part, director Doug Liman steers clear of re-litigating the leak of Plame’s name to the media during the George W. Bush administration, instead focusing on how her being a spy, and then being outed, affected the Wilsons’ marriage.
“Fair Game” begins in Kuala Lumpur, where Plame works in nuclear non-proliferation for the CIA under cover of being an energy executive. After a dicey situation in which she succeeds in “turning” an asset – persuading a local contact to become an informer – she returns home, where Wilson is starting a freelance consulting career and caring for the couple’s young twins. When Plame is reassigned to work on a task force studying whether Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, she is told by higher-ups that the orders are coming from “across the river”; soon she spies I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby (David Andrews) roaming the CIA halls, presumably on orders from his boss, vice president Dick Cheney, to find those WMDs, and fast.
Wilson, meanwhile, travels to Niger at the request of the CIA – with Plame vouching for his bona fides, a fact that would later be used against her – to investigate claims that Hussein has purchased yellowcake uranium from that country.
“Fair Game” presents an impressively faithful tick-tock of the events leading up to Wilson’s decision to write a fateful op-ed contradicting Bush’s statements about that sale (he found no such evidence on his trip) and the subsequent leaking of Plame’s name to columnist Robert Novak. The filmmakers remind viewers that Wilson was an early and vocal critic of Hussein, and Plame herself was pretty sure the dictator was developing a weapons program; neither was a reflexive critic of the Bush Doctrine. The most explosive charge leveled in “Fair Game” is that Iraqi assets developed by Plame were hung out to dry and may have lost their lives after the leak. Those characters reportedly are composites, but they represent a sobering reminder of what was at stake beyond the political theater staged by way of Fox News and MSNBC.
The most compelling scenes don’t transpire in shadowy White House tete-a-tetes or exotic locales but in the Wilsons’ stately Palisades home, where the secrecy of Plame’s job and the emotional demands of marriage clash with unsettling, exhausting force. “I don’t know where you go,” a bleary-eyed Wilson tells Plame when she leaves for yet another undisclosed location. By that time the relationship is being conducted via Post-it notes and strategic handoffs of kids and household responsibilities: in other words, the daily grind of compromise and logistical juggling that defines most modern two-career families.
Liman, until now best known for such action fantasies as “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “The Bourne Identity,” reaches a new high with “Fair Game,” by far his most sophisticated movie yet. With no flashy pyrotechnics or over-the-top action sequences at his disposal, he lets the characters and the story take over, wisely keeping distractions to a minimum. The result is a lean, well-crafted, engaging thriller culminating in an emotionally devastating climax that lands with an enraging shock, despite the fact that it’s so well known by now. “Fair Game” is the kind of taut, serious adult drama Hollywood rarely produces anymore. Quality-starved audiences should flock to it, if only to ensure that more of them get made.