Fair Game is the latest film from director Doug Liman, the man behind Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Go and The Bourne Identity. Liman draws upon all three action paced movies (especially the Bourne movie) to give Fair Game, the account of CIA Agent Valerie Plame-Wilson’s outing as a CIA agent, an edge you generally don’t find in most bio-pics. The film has an intense energy that recalls classics like All the President’s Men and Silkwood. It’s excellent cinematic entertainment, no matter what your political affiliation may be. Add to the mix the powerhouse combination of Naomi Watts and Sean Penn and you have, what I consider, one of the best films of last year, and also one of the most overlooked.
This is one of those “ripped from the headlines” stories with a subject that’s still fresh in the minds of many people. In very general terms, Plame-Wilson was a CIA operative assigned to investigate whether Iraq was trying to acquire nuclear weapons, based upon evidence presented by officials of the Bush White House. At the request of her supervisor, she asked her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, to travel to Niger on a fact finding mission. He visited some old contacts of his and inquired whether Saddam Hussein was trying to purchase uranium to build weapons of mass destruction. Wilson concluded that the evidence presented to the CIA was wrong and he filed a report. However, Bush officials and the President himself contradicted Wilson’s findings and used the original evidence as a means for invading Iraq. Enraged, Wilson wrote a scathing editorial, published in the New York Times, that embarrassed the White House. This lead to a retaliation by the President’s men in the form of a counter editorial, this one written by conservative columnist. Robert Novak. He questioned the choice of Wilson, supposedly without CIA Director George Tenet’s knowledge, and revealed Plame-Wilson’s top secret identity as a CIA operative.
Fair Game shows more than the Plame-Wilson fallout. That all happens an hour into the movie. Before that we get an excellent sense of how trusted an agent Plame-Wilson was the CIA. Additionally, screenwritrers, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, draw us into the lives of an Cleveland doctor who immigrated from Iraq, and her brother, one of Sadam’s scientists. Plame-Wilson seeks out the doctor and convinces her to return to Iraq to get answers about Saddam’s nuclear program. In return, the brother is promised safe passage out of Iraq. Tragically, Plame-Wilson is outed before the scientist and his family can escape. We quickly undersatand the magnitude of this betrayal. It’s not just Plame-Wilson’s life that has been put at risk; it’s every person in a foreign land that she cavorted with throughout her career as a spy.
You couldn’t ask for better casting than Watts and Penn. Naomi Watts continues to prove that she is among the elite of her generation. She puts on a bravado performance easily displaying the struggles Plame-Wilson went through in trying to decide what is right. Her government and the agency she’s devoted most of her adult life to have let her down. At the same time, her husband is being stubborn, reluctant to shoulder any of the blame for their predicament. I don’t think Watts gets enough credit for how much range she has. I fear that some see her as just another pretty face on screen. However, this actress has a resume that outshines most of her peers.
Penn inhabits the role of Wilson with ease. Time and again, the actor has shown that he can slip into the skin of his characters and perform at the highest level. While Watts is clearly the star of this film, Penn’s Wilson has equal footing in the story. Although he’s often an opinionated asshole, Penn also shows the gentle side of the man, especially in his interactions with the Wilson children.
Overall, this is gripping and powerful movie that contains superb production values and excellent supporting performances by Sam Shepard and Bruce McGill. The DVD has only on bonus feature, but it’s well worth checking out. Valerie Plame-Wilson and Joseph Wilson provide audio commentary throughout the movie. It’s fascinating to hear them speak and other their views on the events unfolding on screen.