Mark Reviews Movies

FAIR GAME (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Doug Liman

Cast: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Ty Burrell, Sam Shepard, Bruce McGill, Noah Emmerich, David Andrews

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 11/5/10

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 5, 2010

The lesson (continuing even now) is do not mess with these people. They will destroy your life. They will imply that you are every horrible thing just short of slander and let their attack dogs in the media take it from there, protected by the simple defense of setting the verbal assault up as question ("How do you respond to those who call you a traitor?"). Your case, no matter how strong, will always be remembered with skepticism. Yes, Valerie Plame worked with the CIA, the pundits will proclaim, but was she actually a covert operative?

The existence of doubt is enough. There was a time when reasonable doubt was enough to dismiss an allegation of guilt against the accused, but in this warped political landscape, even a vague hint of doubt is more than enough to condemn the victim. The burden of proof has shifted in a radical way. Those in power do not need to prove they are right; they must only suggest that those who question are wrong.

Fair Game is the story of two loyal Americans whose lives top people in the George W. Bush administration attempted to destroy. It is a political film, not in the sense of advancing an agenda (director Doug Liman approaches the detailed script with emotional restraint), but in the acknowledgment of real names and actual events, conjectured, behind-the-scenes gossip and documented, in-front-of-the-camera strikes. The angriest the film gets is in doing exactly what it depicts the powerful doing: It names names.

Naomi Watts plays Plame, a covert agent with the CIA, working in counter-proliferation. Her husband Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn) is a former US Ambassador, now an independent contractor.

The story begins in the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with Plame searching for reliable intelligence that Saddam Hussein has been acquiring materials to build nuclear weapons after a push from the Office of the Vice President that such information exists. She suggests her husband, who worked in Africa for over a decade, go to Niger, whence a report from the Vice President's office suggests Iraq is obtaining hundreds of tons of yellowcake uranium. He finds no official or unofficial evidence of such a transaction taking place and writes as much in his own report.

Events begin to spiral out of control for everyone involved, from Plame all the way up to her bosses in the agency. "Scooter" Libby (David Andrews) begins to take daily trips across the Potomac to grill analysts. Here is the Vice President's understanding of the situation, he tells them: Saddam is building weapons of mass destruction. The analysts say the reports cannot be fully verified or disproven. Asking for the margin of error, Libby pushes them; even a one percent chance that it's right could result in the deaths of millions upon millions.

Wilson watches Bush's State of the Union address in 2003 (and Liman uses footage of the actual speech), listens as he says a certain unfounded 16 words, and, less than two months later, the United States invades Iraq. Wilson publishes an op-ed piece in the New York Times, and soon after, Valerie Plame is revealed to work for the CIA according to sources in the White House.

The screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (based on books by both Plame and Wilson) is rife with details, supported by news clips, and driven by quiet outrage (how else to explain the buffoonish, wide-eyed stare of the film's Karl Rove (Adam LeFevre) and the stuttering, incoherence of its Ari Fleischer (Geoffrey Cantor), even if the latter is spot-on). It suggests an organized character assassination against Wilson through his wife, perpetuated by a few willing cohorts in the media (who don't even bother asking him questions eventually and just flat-out call him a traitor), with most of the alleged perpetrators avoiding indictment.

The establishment of the background events is a fine telling, but the backbone of the film is in the portrayal of the two targets. Both Plame and Wilson here are presented as strong-willed, almost stubborn people of principles. They both have the defense of their family in the forefront of their mind. The clash is in the way they each believe is the best approach to it, with Plame insisting on remaining silent and Wilson shouting the injustice from the mountaintops.

It is their conflict, caused by but apart from the betrayal and mudslinging and anchored in resolute performances by Watts and Penn, that elevates Fair Game above its initial ambitions of docudrama.

Copyright 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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