Monday, November 29, 2010

Fair Game

I’m glad Fair Game got made, and I’m glad I saw it, but I wish it were a better movie.

It’s easy to imagine why director Doug Liman might have wanted to make a film about the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts, pictured above with Plame) by her own government. Like a real-life version of the Angelina Jolie character in Liman’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Plame was a beautiful, tough, ingenious spy masquerading as an ordinary working woman (The first half hour or so of the film shows Plame at work, offering an intriguing window into the world of an undercover CIA agent). In fact, Plame’s story may be even more incredible than the fictional Smith’s.

It all started, as Fair Game shows us, when Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), wrote a New York Times editorial challenging a story the Bush administration was telling about Iraq stockpiling supplies for building nukes. That claim had helped pave the way for the then-recent U.S. invasion of Iraq, so Wilson’s report challenged the entire premise for our presence there. To divert attention from his editorial, White House insiders set out to undermine Wilson’s credibility, claiming he was an unemployed hack the CIA had sent to investigate rumors about nuclear materials only because his wife, a CIA agent, arranged the trip to give him something to do. Someone in the White House fed that story to Robert Novak, and he told the world in a Washington Post column.

The leak blew Plame’s cover to smithereens, costing her her job, compromising every mission she was involved in, and endangering the lives of her informants. Along with the ad hominen attacks that went with it, it also exposed Wilson and Plame to a media mob, anonymous death threats, public denunciations, and snide character assassinations by TV talking heads.

Based on the books the two wrote about the episode (Wilson’s was The Politics of Truth; Plame’s was Fair Game), the film cleaves tightly to the couple’s perspective on the episode and its aftermath. That point of view winds up being both the movie’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

Sean Penn is well cast as the staunchly self-righteous Wilson, and Watts (pictured above, at right, with Plame) is excellent as the steely but sensitive Plame. Their household feels like a real home, their two young children always audible in the background and often popping up to demand attention. Their marriage feels lived-in too, full of authentic touches like Plame’s stiff posture as she stops on her way out the door for a quick fight about how estranged they’ve become (“All we’ve been doing is leaving Post-Its for each other,” Wilson tells her), or the look two exchange at a DC dinner party while other guests blow hard about the fictional nuclear materials.

But by putting the couple’s increasingly strained marriage at the heart of the story, Fair Game unintentionally trivializes its subject. It’s as if the worst thing about the Bush administration’s willingness to throw one of its own agents and her informants under the bus—not to mention its refusal to let facts get in the way of its pre-determined plan to invade Iraq, the philosophy behind its betrayal of Plame—was that it interfered with the happiness of the Plame-Wilson household.

Liman, who served as his own cinematographer, overuses the shaky handheld camera that gave his Bourne Identity so much of its nervous energy. It often seems annoyingly egregious here, especially in a meeting in Plame’s drab CIA office building, where dizzying blurred pans and low-angle shots strain to add drama to the sight of people sitting at a conference table.

But the biggest disappointment is the ending, a corny climax in which a canned-sounding speech Wilson delivers about the need to “defend your freedom” is intercut with heroic footage of Watts marching to testify at a Senate hearing on her case. As Liman cuts from Watts to Plame herself, showing us video of her actual testimony as the end credits roll, what should have been a stirring ending fizzles out to the sound of Plame’s stiff, sing-song speech.

Fair Game got me riled up all over again about what happened to Wilson and Plame, but it didn’t add anything to my understanding of what they accomplished. What did their battle mean, in the end—not to their marriage but to our democracy, our freedom of speech, and our national security? Maybe Liman just wanted to ask the question, but I would have liked the movie better if it had provided some answers.

Written for TimeOFF

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