Secrets and lies and a suburban couple

November 5th, 2010

Chicago Tribune

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By Michael Phillips Tribune movie critic

9:04 a.m. CDT, November 4, 2010

Doug Liman made “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” the movie that brought together Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie over a pile of weapons. Now the same director, who also made “The Bourne Identity,” gives us a real-life, only partly glamorized Mr. and Mrs. Smith: a fact-based tale of Valerie Plame, a non-official covert operative (NOC) in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency, and her diplomat husband Joseph Wilson. One personality fed on secrecy, the other, bravado and public outrage.

“Fair Game” takes us back to a place many of us are reluctant to revisit in the name of a good time: the Bush White House in the years 2002 and 2003, as the excuses for invading Iraq got more craven and deceptive by the second. Naomi Watts portrays Plame, whom we first see working undercover in Kuala Lumpur. (Working as his own cinematographer, Liman shot “Fair Game” in Egypt, Jordan, Malaysia and Iraq, in addition to Washington, D.C., and New York.) She comes and goes, while her husband, played by Sean Penn, wonders where she’s coming and going.

“We’ve been leaving Post-its for each other for months now….if you go missing, I can’t tell anyone because you were never there.” In their suburban D.C. kitchen, Wilson’s plea is answered with a simple: “I’m going to Cleveland.” They know it’s a lie that must be retold. This is the most interesting material in the film: the everyday domestic weirdnesses, in and among kids and lunches and schedules, of a spy and her husband, a former U.S. ambassador.

The CIA sent Wilson to Niger to determine whether Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy uranium yellowcake for his weapons program. Wilson came back with a “no.” The Bush team wanted a “yes.” One thing led to another. Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times taking issue with how his intelligence was ignored. Vice President Dick Cheney’s office eventually leaked Plame’s identity to columnist Robert Novak, in an attempt to frame Wilson as a freeloading, unreliable spouse. Once Plame’s name was in print and online, her career was over. But she fought back, and while “Fair Game” has a few lines you wish it didn’t (“They’re not going to take my marriage!”), it’s an absorbing thriller honoring its subjects without making them saints.

Watts conveys intelligence and a steely core; Penn’s Wilson, rough around the edges and a bit of a blowhard, has a particularly well-written scene (the script is by British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) in which he reminds Valerie that the loudest voice in the room isn’t the smartest, or the bravest, it’s simply the loudest. Liman’s sensibility isn’t sophisticated enough to tease out the nuances of what must be a pretty interesting marriage; the movie is more about texture and surfaces and surface tensions. But it moves. Do audiences want to revisit this time, these stories, this account of character smears and political sleaze? We’ll see. But if they do see it, they’ll get a pretty good movie out of it. “Fair Game” struck me as minor in its Cannes Film Festival premiere earlier this year. A few months later, outside the festival context, it seems not quite major, but not quite minor. And it’s about something that matters.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some language)

Cast: Naomi Watts (Valerie Plame); Sean Penn (Joseph Wilson); Sam Shepard (Sam Plame); Ty Burrell (Fred); David Andrews ( Scooter Libby); Brooke Smith (Diana); Noah Emmerich (Bill); Bruce McGill (Jim Pavitt); Adam LeFevre ( Karl Rove)

Credits: 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; produced by Bill Pohlad, Janet Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Akiva Goldsman, Jez Butterworth and Doug Liman. A Summit Entertainment release. Running time: 1:46.