Fair Game (Summit Entertainment, PG-13)

It suffers from an identity crisis as the two halves of the whole—the political thriller on the one hand and the portrait of a marriage on the other—exist uneasily together.

 
 
 
 
 
At one point near the end of Fair Game, Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn) asks a class of students if they know the 16 words* that sent us into war with Iraq. They don’t. Then he asks them if they know the name of his wife. They do. And that, in a nutshell, is the case made by Doug Liman’s Fair Game: you can’t count on either your elected officials or the news media to tell you the truth or even to distinguish between important and unimportant facts. Not if it will interfere with their precious little careers, anyway, which makes this film an interesting companion piece to Freakonomics, whose primary message is that if you find out what the incentives are, you can pretty much predict how people will behave.
 
There are always exceptions, of course, and that, as much as their high-powered careers, is what makes Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) so interesting. As presented in Liman’s film (based in part on The Politics of Truth by Wilson and Fair Game by Plame) they’re neither perfect (who among us is?) nor lacking in ambition (they wouldn’t have gotten where they are without it). But when push comes to shove, both are able to access a core of personal integrity that makes them do the right thing regardless of personal cost.
 
In case you’ve forgotten about the events of the Plame/Wilson case, here’s a quick summary. In the years immediately preceding the Iraq War both Plame, working as a covert CIA operative, and Wilson, acting on behalf of the CIA, produced information that was not what the Bush administration wanted to hear: Plame that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program, Wilson that Iraq had not purchased yellowcake (uranium powder) from Niger. Despite this and other information (e.g., from the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission) that contradicted their belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration proceeded with their plans to invade Iraq.
 
Several months later, Wilson published an editorial in the New York Times charging that the Bush administration had twisted information in order to justify the Iraq war. In retaliation, Valerie Plame’s identity and occupation were leaked to the press, not only ending her CIA career but also endangering the lives of many informants she had cultivated (and ending any possibility of gaining useful information from her ongoing operations). Dick Cheney’s former Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby (David Andrews) was convicted of four felonies in conjunction with the case but had his sentence commuted almost immediately by President Bush.
 
Fair Game is an enjoyable movie, particularly if you agree with its point of view, but it’s not one for the ages. It suffers from an identity crisis as the two halves of the whole—the political thriller on the one hand and the portrait of a marriage on the other—exist uneasily together. Liman is a master of efficient narration as he sets out the main facts of the Plame/Wilson case using real names and much archival footage, and even though we know how the story comes out, in this telling it seems fresh and new. The story of the Plame/Wilson marriage is inevitably less interesting because of its sheer ordinariness. Watching characters fly around the world gathering intelligence will always be more interesting than contemplating the child care difficulties of a two-career couple. Given that handicap, it’s a credit to the acting abilities of Penn and Watts that they are able to make their characters seem very real and human and the domestic difficulties involving. Watts is particularly good as the totally professional if somewhat naïve and introverted Plame while Penn provides good contrast as the more emotional, extroverted Wilson. Several actors in supporting roles also make a strong contribution, including David Andrews as a snake-like Scooter Libby and Sam Shepard as Valerie’s father.
 
I saw a digital screening of Fair Game so I’m a little hesitant to say too much about the image quality; some cases of extreme pixelation may have been a technical malfunction at that particular screening rather than a flaw in the original. Setting that problem aside, the quality of the cinematography (credited to Doug Liman) is disappointing. A clear presentation of the story is what is required in this type of film, and we’re all clear that it’s fiction (although based on fact). Shaky-cam and bad framing won’t convince us otherwise, so there’s nothing wrong with setting up the tripods and getting a good image, OK? Somewhat surprisingly given the pervasive use of handheld cameras, much use is also made of standard Hollywood conventions (over-the-shoulder shots) and attention-getting maneuvers (rack focus, extreme close-ups, intrusive pans) that leave the cinematography with a split identity to match that of the film as a whole—and not in a good way. It’s not bad enough to make me recommend skipping Fair Game, but I do hope it doesn’t become a trend. | Sarah Boslaugh
 
*Just in case you were wondering, here are those 16 fateful words from President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

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