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Fair Game

Naomi Watts and Sean Penn in Fair Game.

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Fair Game

Adapted from the memoir by Valerie Plame Wilson, Fair Game offers two movies for the price of one. The first is a marital drama with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts (in their third film together) as Joe and Valerie Wilson, a couple with an unusual strain on their happiness. She works for the CIA as an NOC, an undercover officer who frequently travels overseas under an assumed identity. She of course can’t talk about her work, and anytime she leaves the house Joe doesn’t know where she’s going, how long she’ll be gone, and when—or if—she’ll be back.

Even when she’s home, she can’t talk about her work, and what is marriage if you can’t unburden your job frustrations with your spouse? And when they fight, as spouses do, her work gets in the way. “Do you think I’m lying to you?” she asks him. He replies, “Could I tell if you were?”

That’s an interesting basis for a drama, and it’s handled with some aplomb. But of course it’s not the real draw of this movie. Plame, as I assume I don’t have to remind you, is the spy who was outed in 2003 by the Bush White House. Exposing an undercover officer is generally considered a treasonous offense: For such an act to be engineered by a sitting administration boggles the mind.

Her offense? Nothing, really. But the office of the vice president was enraged at her husband, who in 2002 went to Niger at the request of the CIA in see if there was any truth to the story that Saddam Hussein was getting yellowcake uranium from there.

Joe Wilson reported that there was no evidence that the rumor was true, and that it was at best highly unlikely. Nevertheless, Bush’s 2003 state of the union address included the now infamous 16 words implying that the rumors were true. Colin Powell repeated the charges a few weeks later to the UN, ratcheting up support for a war that should never have been fought.

Wilson went public with his findings and how they had been either ignored or distorted by the White House. The outing of his wife served to undermine his credibility (though the implication that she was responsible for sending him on a “junket” to Niger is ludicrous—he was not paid for his work, and Niger is hardly a desirable tourist location) as well as to deflect public attention from the real charge, that the administration was cherry picking evidence to go to war.

And of course it also worked as punishment: See what we can do if you mess with us?

Like the bumper stickers say, if you aren’t mad, you haven’t been paying attention. Smartly directed by Doug Liman, who knows how to keep a complicated story rolling smoothly (The Bourne Identity), Fair Game functions the same way for this era that the film of All the President’s Men did after Watergate. It recreates a recent scandal that people still remember but whose details they may have lost track of.

That’s even more of a service now than it was in the late 1970s, before the growth of the right-wing noise machine that has been so effective at muddying the national debate. If this movie serves no other purpose, it reminds you that there are far too many media outlets willing to pass along tissue-thin stories as if they were hard news. (How many times did you hear the ridiculous accusation that President Barack Obama’s recent trip to India cost $200 million per day?)

The danger with a movie like this—and, I’m sorry to say, a review like this—is of preaching to the converted. On its objective merits, Fair Game is well acted by its stars—Watts looks strikingly like the real Plame, and Penn is ideally cast as the kind of character who says, “You knew I was an asshole when you married me.” It’s only drawback is the muddy digital photography (which I assume is intentional—Liman has certainly shown himself able in the past to put together a slick-looking film on a small budget).

Will anyone see it who disagrees with its assertion, that the office of the vice president willfully lied the country into war? Probably not, more’s the pity. I’ve done a lot of reading on the case since seeing the film and haven’t found much to fault it on. You might complain that the subplot concerning a Iraqi-American doctor sent to Iraq to get information from her brother, a physicist in Saddam’s employ, didn’t actually involve Plame. But it did happen: As reported in James Risen’s book State of War, 30 such CIA attempts to use American relatives of Iraqi scientists to get information about any WMD programs all came up empty.

I hope doubters do see it despite the fact that it’s only playing in two local theaters. I’d like to hear what they have to say.

Watch the trailer for Fair Game

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