Marital Strife and C.I.A. Obligations
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: November 4, 2010
“Fair Game,” directed by Doug Liman from a screenplay by the brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, is partly, maybe even primarily, the portrait of a modern marriage under stress.
The central couple, professionally ambitious and proud of their accomplishments, live in material comfort and close to power, juggling the demands of work and domesticity in the usual ways. The husband, retired from one career, is trying to start a new business, while his wife, younger and on a faster track, flies around the world, taking meetings in global hot spots like Cairo, Kuala Lumpur, Amman and Cleveland. He has to deal with child care crises — they have young twins — while she grapples with the pressures of office life. They don’t always communicate as well as they should, which means that when real trouble comes along, their relationship nearly collapses under the strain.
A perfectly ordinary situation, with the interesting added wrinkle that they are Valerie Plame Wilson and Joseph Wilson, whose story is both a fascinating sidebar in the history of the George W. Bush years and an emblem of what American politics looked like back then. Do you remember? Coming on the heels of the latest WikiLeaks data dump and the publication of Mr. Bush’s memoir of his time in office, the release of “Fair Game” is part of a wave of renewed argumentation that might almost be mistaken for nostalgia. We need to keep fighting about the recent past because its legacy is still with us, of course, but also, perhaps, to distract us from the equally quarrelsome present.
Based on separate memoirs by Ms. Wilson and Mr. Wilson and made with their cooperation, “Fair Game” does not disguise its sympathies. Valerie, a C.I.A. operative played with brisk energy by Naomi Watts, is a paragon of professional commitment and sober initiative. Her specialty is nonproliferation, and when, in 2002, she is given the assignment of investigating Saddam Hussein’s nuclear and biological weapons programs, she understands its significance for her own career and for the nation.
The film’s canniest, quietest insight is that for people in jobs like hers, careerism and dedication to a cause can be mutually reinforcing. The problem arises when Valerie’s sense of what the job requires — a dispassionate, empirical analysis of the available intelligence — runs up against another agenda. When she and her colleagues find extensive evidence that Iraq is not actively developing weapons of mass destruction, their conclusions are overridden by men from the office of the vice president, most notably I. Lewis Libby Jr., known as Scooter and played as a smooth-talking demon by David Andrews. The bureaucrats charged with interpreting reality are trumped by the politicians whose avowed mission is to create reality.
Valerie, a disciplined functionary, tries to swallow her frustration and do as she is told. Joe, played with splendid, swaggering and affectionate pomposity by Sean Penn, is more of a wild card. Dispatched to Niger, at Valerie’s suggestion, to check out allegations that Hussein had purchased large quantities of uranium, he finds nothing. When Mr. Bush, in his State of the Union address, contends that Iraq had indeed gone shopping for nuclear material in Africa, Joe tries to set the record straight and then publishes an Op-Ed article in The New York Times to make his case.
You may remember what happens next. Valerie’s cover is blown, and Joe wages a noisy campaign to expose the culprits and to defend both of their reputations against an onslaught of spin, innuendo and attempted character assassination.
The public aspects of this story are dealt with efficiently and pointedly in the movie, which folds video of some of the actual players into careful re-enactments. There are some embellishments — the exiled Iraqi doctor (Liraz Charhi) Valerie recruits is a fictional character, as is her brother (Khaled Nabawy), a scientist living in Baghdad — and also a few omissions. Many real names are dropped in the course of “Fair Game,” which has a way of bringing attention to those that aren’t — for example, Judith Miller, the former reporter for The New York Times, whose role in the Plame affair was big news at the time.
What makes the film work — in addition to the energy and agility of the performances and Mr. Liman’s fast and fluid style — is the precise counterpoint of public and domestic dramas. Mr. Penn and Ms. Watts are a convincingly imperfect couple. Joe, a business consultant who had been a diplomat, tries to suppress his frustration at how much his wife works, and perhaps also his envy that she has a more important and glamorous job than he does.
He is also her temperamental foil, floridly argumentative while she is circumspect. Joe loves to be right and to tell other people that they are wrong, whether at the dinner table or on television, and his zeal comes into conflict with both Valerie’s ingrained habit of secrecy and her natural reserve.
This part of the story — the portrait of the modern marriage — is graceful and subtle. That the rest of the movie is sometimes less so has to do with circumstances beyond the control of the characters or the filmmakers. American movies demand happy endings, in which wrongs are set right, and truth prevails over falsehood. “Fair Game,” somewhat like Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job,” gestures in that direction, concluding on a note of idealism that does not quite seem warranted by the facts of the story. Things worked out between Joe and Valerie, and for their real-life models, who are now the subjects of a terrifically entertaining movie. But that does not mean that justice was done, or that truth prevailed.
“Fair Game” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some profanity.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Doug Liman; written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, based on the books “The Politics of Truth,” by Joseph Wilson, and “Fair Game,” by Valerie Plame Wilson; director of photography, Mr. Liman; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; music by John Powell; production design by Jess Gonchor; costumes by Cindy Evans; produced by Bill Pohlad, Janet Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Akiva Goldsman, Jez Butterworth and Mr. Liman; released by Summit Entertainment. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes.
WITH: Naomi Watts (Valerie Plame Wilson), Sean Penn (Joseph Wilson), Sam Shepard (Sam Plame), Noah Emmerich (Bill), Bruce McGill (Jim Pavitt), David Andrews (I. Lewis Libby Jr.), Tim Griffin (Paul), Liraz Charhi (Dr. Zahraa) and Khaled Nabawy (Hamed).