Film review: Fair Game

Duncan Wu finds a CIA thriller based on real events in Bush's White House more compelling than fiction

February 17, 2011

Credit: E1 Entertainment Films

Fair Game

Directed by Doug Liman

Starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn

Released in the UK on 11 March

"I'm not feeling very double-o-sevenish" says Joe Wilson - a character played in Fair Game by Sean Penn, an actor clever enough not to invest any irony in a remark so ironic as to elicit a grin of pleasure from even the most bone-headed of its audience members. I suspect that some of those with whom I saw this film, in the multiplex in Georgetown, Washington DC, were hoping for a political thriller, or perhaps something like The Bourne Identity - also the work of its director, Doug Liman. In fact, this is a more mature and demanding film than any spook yarn to come out of Hollywood, one so compellingly produced that no one at the screening I attended was tempted to leave. It is, perhaps, one of the few cinematic accounts of what it is really like to work for the CIA.

The film takes its title from Karl Rove's now infamous remark, quoted towards the end of the movie: "Wilson's wife is fair game." It tells the story of how the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame was betrayed, purely as a face-saving measure, by associates of President George W. Bush. In doing so, it has no option but to describe the mechanics of how and why the US declared war on Iraq, a nation that lacked weapons of mass destruction - against evidence and advice provided by its own intelligence agents. None of the films thus far devoted to this disturbing subject has so clearly accounted for the manipulation of intelligence sources, for purely self-serving motives, by Scooter Libby or Rove, nor have they demonstrated so unequivocally the terrible consequences of their actions.

Based on memoirs by Plame and her husband (both of whom worked as advisers to the film-makers), Fair Game reveals the extent to which life in the intelligence services is defined by negatives: the impossibility of leading a normal family life; the need to lie to one's friends; the importance of not revealing, even to one's nearest and dearest, where one is going or what one is doing; the monastic devotion to a career that demands everything of one. To what extent the film romanticises the story of Plame and her husband it is hard to say; it probably does so in the usual Hollywood manner - by taking their marriage through the expected plot "arc".

But in other respects, the film's director, Liman, is to be commended for his restraint. There is no Ludlumising of the script, written by the British playwright Jez Butterworth and his brother John-Henry, who provide a terse, unfussy rendering of a complex story, right up to the moment when, in 2007, Plame testified to Congress on the machinations against her by the Bush administration, video footage of which plays under the closing titles.

My only reservation - and it is a slight one - is over Naomi Watts, charged with the job of portraying Plame. Watts seems always to be steeling herself to do and say difficult things - something that, after years in the CIA, Plame must have grown out of. In one scene, she is asked how she manages to "lie to someone, to their face". "You have to know why you're doing it," Watts replies. "And you must never forget the truth." The confidence she demonstrates at that moment isn't always evident in her manner elsewhere.

But this is the mildest of inconsistencies, and never undermines the credibility of a film that, for all its concentration on Plame, is essentially an ensemble piece. Penn as Plame's husband is authoritative in all the right ways: proud, resentful, angry, but always commanding the gravitas of a former US ambassador. David Andrews incarnates Libby as a twitching, furtive, heartless man - a portrayal that verges on parody, but which serves up the self-righteous arrogance of the Bush administration in all its glory.

Such is the film's fidelity to the facts that its occasional news footage of Bush and Dick Cheney blends seamlessly with the acted drama, turning real-life politicians into witnesses to their own unspeakable crimes. This is particularly effective when, in one scene, Bush is shown on television telling the United Nations, "We seek peace. We strive for peace. And sometimes peace must be defended." Those words are followed immediately by more newsreel - of the bombing of Baghdad.

Thanks to its writers, Fair Game manages to do more than tell the stories of its protagonists. It is an indictment both of Bush and of the trivialising of the news agenda in modern America. All of which raises the frightening issue of how influential the Murdoch press has been during the recent US elections, and how much power it will wield in those scheduled for 2012. If the likes of political commentator Glenn Beck get their way, the enlightened aspirations of the Obama presidency are likely to be short-lived. It is impossible to imagine such issues being raised by any film made by Fox. And it makes me wonder for how much longer such films as Fair Game can continue to find backers, let alone an audience.

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