Dir: Doug Liman
You’ve probably heard by now that a substantial number of voters failed to make it to the polls for last week’s midterm election. If you are among those voters – one who couldn’t be bothered to voice your opinion or who allowed your political cynicism to validate your silence — let me caution you: Fair Game will make you uncomfortable. At the very least, you will leave the theater chastened. Hopefully, you will also realize the terrifying power that fear, complacency and disaffection among the many allows the few, the politicians, to wield – and it will light a fire under your ass to wake up, know what’s happening and vote the hell out of 2012.
Why? Because Fair Game is the story of former CIA agent Valerie Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson, two Americans who stood their ground and spoke out against government deception when countless others refused to take responsibility for White House affairs. In case you don’t recall the details of the Plame scandal, here’s a quick flashback: in July of 2003, the Bush administration outted Valerie Plame and effectively forced her to end her career as an agent. Her position at the agency was leaked to the press (or handed to them, rather, compliments of Scooter Libby) after her husband, Wilson, published an op-ed in the New York Times claiming that the Bush administration had manipulated CIA data regarding weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the war in Iraq. Directed by Doug Liman (of Bourne Identity fame) and starring Naomi Watts as Plame and an electrifying Sean Penn as Joe Wilson, Fair Game blends biographical information from Plame’s memoir with thriller pacing, captivating performance and a heady dose of righteous outrage to reveal the story behind Plame’s work as a covert operations officer and her family’s experience in the aftermath of “Plamegate.”
Equally adept evoking the cool, sharp, collected presence of pre-scandal Plame and the mental and emotional machinations of a woman whose career, marriage, privacy and professional accountability are suddenly and without warning blown to smithereens, Watts turns in the kind of irreproachable performance that filmgoers have come to expect from an actor of her caliber. There’s no doubt that Watts, who also happens to bear a convenient resemblance to Plame, executes an accurate portrayal or her subject: throughout the film she bears an earnestness, a determination…and yet ultimately a restraint in her acting that begs the question: what might Watts have brought to Fair Game if it had been based on fiction rather than fact? Held back, perhaps, by the closeness and reality of Plame’s experience (and, considering the subject matter, the heightened necessity for truth and accuracy over creative license), Watts is strong and solid, but never a blazing star.
That honor falls to Penn, who is by no means hampered dramatically in his role as outspoken, ardent former ambassador Joe Wilson. If Watts finds herself responsible for the heart of the story in Fair Game, Penn gets to carry the wild, raging soul – and he does, magnetically and with a power that validates his repeated presence on the Best Actor contenders list. Of course, there here are a number of undeniably incendiary factors driving Penn’s performance: brandishing a passionate demand for accountability from the Bush administration after its downright dishonest handling of intelligence on the eve of the Iraqi war, Wilson was anything but restrained. Unlike his wife, impeccably trained in the art of secrecy and unflinching façade, Wilson was a powder keg – and Penn, therefore, is free to bring his considerable dramatic skill and all the fire of Wilson’s indefatigable rebellion to the forefront. Still, he does it so damn well that we feel the sparks; we get tingles. As for the personal dynamic of Plame’s story (one which might have been lost amidst its incredible political implications in the hands of lesser actors), Penn and Watts deftly play Wilson’s hotheadedness against Plame’s reserve, seasoning the pathos with just a hint of playful affection and convincing us of the love that finally binds these two people together against incredible odds.
At its heart, Fair Game is a political spy thriller, and a good one at that. But it is also a film that zeroes in upon a host of American fears, weaknesses, tendencies and sensitivities that still lie sore and tender beneath the thin veil of our current collective consciousness. In other words, it is terrifying, inspiring, impressive and, as I noted earlier, incredibly uncomfortable. To quote Joe Wilson, Fair Game dares to “ask those questions” – the difficult questions about what we’re doing in Iraq, how and why we really got there in the first place, and who is ultimately responsible for the actions put into effect in the Oval Office. It would be easy to make a movie indicting an administration and championing the underdog who speaks the truth against all odds. Instead, Liman, his cast, Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson deserve credit for giving us a film that challenges by implicating us – by indicting the Bush administration, yes, but also everyone else who failed to fight against that government’s most dubious decisions – in the betrayal of innocent people on all sides.
by Lauren Westerfield