Fair Game (2010)

There are two stories in Fair Game, one big picture, one little. They're both about ambition, trust, devotion to truth, reality. Both are stories familiar in their generalities, and in their specifics. And both are stories about what happened to Valerie Plame Wilson.

Valerie (Naomi Watts), you may recall, was the CIA operative outed by the Bush Administration after her husband Joe (Sean Penn) accused the White House of dissembling about weapons of mass destruction during the march to war against Iraq. Joe Wilson, a former US ambassador, had gone to Africa at the behest of the CIA, investigated the alleged sale of the infamous "yellowcake" uranium, and found no evidence that Iraq ever bought any nuclear material. The conclusion of Valerie and her team of analysts at the CIA was that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. When the president, in his State of the Union address, claimed otherwise, Joe went on the warpath, ultimately accusing the administration of lying in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. Then, the story goes, Valerie's identity as a CIA spook was revealed -- her career at the CIA destroyed -- in order to discredit her husband.

Fair Game recounts all of that, but then shifts focus to create an intimate portrait of a couple facing a life-altering attack. As Valerie's career disintegrates, her marriage begins to collapse under the strain. What's interesting about Valerie and Joe is not that they are exceptional, but rather that they are, in a lot of ways, a fairly ordinary couple. Joe's older, already retired from his first career, now a stay-at-home dad starting up a consulting business. He gets the bulk of the childcare duty -- they have young twins -- while his younger, globetrotting wife, her career still in its ascendancy, works late in the night at a high-stress, demanding job. Temperamentally, they're quite different -- he's an idealist and a hothead for whom being right is more important than anything. He never leaves a dinner party without getting into at least one argument, while his cooler, more reserved wife bites her tongue and is good at keeping secrets. Joe spends his days in a righteous fury, tilting at windmills with all his might. His best weapon -- the truth -- is no match for White House operatives who decide what's true, and bend reality to suit their political purposes. Valerie, levelheaded, calm, and persuasive, is accustomed to analyzing data and interpreting reality. As ambitious as she is, and as devoted to the truth as she is, she's a team player, and understands that hers is not the final word. As the story is told in Fair Game, she gets caught in the crossfire between Joe and the White House.

Fair Game, written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (based on memoirs by Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson), and directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith), requires quite a bit of set-up, which the movie moves through briskly, with both Joe and Valerie hopping from one global hot spot to another. It helps, watching the movie, if you're already familiar with the basics of what happened in the Plame affair, and the political import of it all. The world is, of course, still dealing with the fallout of the Bush years, but Fair Game chooses to focus primarily on the personal consequences for the Wilsons. They are, in the big picture, small potatoes, just more collateral damage in the Bush Wars. But, as Fair Game reveals, no target was too small to be in the crosshairs of the venal, mendacious Bush operatives Scooter Libby (David Andrews, hatefully smooth-talking and self-satisfied) and Karl Rove (Adam LeFevre).

The movie mixes video clips from the Bush presidency (carefully selected to inflame old sentiments anew), with Liman's juddering handheld camera footage to create an unsettling, immediate sense of the floor falling out from under the Wilsons, and the end of the world as we knew it. Fair Game is a gripping, infuriating cloak-and-dagger political thriller about how all politics is personal, and how the petty, vindictive personal stuff and the neo-con world order stuff collided in the attack on the Wilsons.