Seven years, trillions of dollars and thousands of lives later, and we're still trying to chop through the thicket of half-truths and distortions that obscured the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The thorniest of those tangles grew around the issue of weapons of mass destruction, where they were or if they were ever there at all, and this massive choker vine of an issue all but strangled one family at the center of the vicious political argument.
The couple in question are of course Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), dedicated career public servants turned into a political kickball by a White House eager to discredit any doubters — victims made oddly more vulnerable by their furious indignation.
In 2002, Valerie was a long-serving CIA field operative specializing in counter-proliferation and actively working multiple assets in the Middle East; her husband Joe had served as a senior diplomat under Bill Clinton. His expertise in all things Africa made him an ideal candidate for an agency-sponsored fact-finding trip to Niger, where allegedly fissionable material was sold to Iraq's government. Trouble was, Wilson found nothing to support that dubious claim, and when he fired off a New York Times op-ed saying as much, the brown stuff really hit the fan. Reality didn't reconcile with the anti-Saddam Hussein narrative the administration had worked so hard to weave, landing the Wilsons squarely in the sights of the power-mad Bushies. A full-on media assault was launched against them, beginning with a "senior official" leaking Valerie's identity to conservative flamethrower Robert Novak, who promptly blew her cover in print.
Her career shattered, she now had to face the friends and family she had been lying to for years, and had to live with the terrible truth that most of the people she'd been working with in the field were now in danger. Meanwhile the rumor-mongers weirdly tried to emasculate Wilson by claming that he was sent on some errand by his wife, as if looking for yellowcake was another item on his honey-do list. Joe took to the airwaves to fight back, grabbing any camera that'd have him and trying to outshout the white noise directed against him, while his instinctively covert wife just wanted to hide.
Fair Game bristles with the outrage of that still-raw nerve, and at times feels a bit like an act of revenge, but also a confessional of a marriage pushed to the brink. The duality of macro- and micro-concerns anchors the film in a human drama, beyond the familiar tabloid details and polemical shouting.
The dependable Watts is in fine form here, using her icy looks and trademark wounded intensity to good effect, though she sometimes comes off as brittle. Penn, however, seems perversely opposed to pleasure, and plays Joe like an insufferable moral absolutist, far more dour than his avuncular real-world public persona.
The script was adapted from the Wilsons' own memoirs, so any character assassination is by their own hand. The one-sidedness doesn't necessary weaken their argument, but it does tend to put the opposition in an evil, mustache-twirling light. The script isn't shy about using real names and faces either; David Andrews effectively bottles Libby's sneering arrogance, and Adam LeFevre makes for a vile, treacherous Karl Rove, which is to say he's on point.
Fair Game is whip-smart and airtight, a little too tight to breathe at times. Doug Liman (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) clearly loves the cloak-and-dagger stuff, though here there's far more action around the kitchen table, with scenes of a marriage in chaos, and sometimes that intimacy can be tough to watch. Joe and Valerie came through the ordeal intact — if only the same could be said with certainty about our nation's soul.
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