Fair Game

Fair Game Iron Man 2 Fair Game

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2010 (In Competition)–The seductively smart, cool Naomi Watts appears in the very beginning of Doug Liman’s “Fair Game,” as the covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, seen snaring her unsuspecting target with a shrewd mixture of steely professionalism, intelligence and natural aplomb.

And so it registers a particular disappointment that Liman and his writers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth are unable to develop and sustain the movie’s early momentum.

The story of how Plame was cut off at the knees and sacrificed at the altar of powerful Washington political figures as payback for her husband’s political criticism of the Bush Administration’s rationale for the Iraq war, “Fair Game” devolves into an artistically cautious movie that goes seriously astray in the second half.

The particulars of the story dominated political and media discourse for such a long time the movie contains very little new information or different analysis in this telling. What could have been a fascinating story of how a covert operative reconciles her shadowy life with the emotional and personal demands of career and family turns into an especially disappointing social conscious muckraking movie that yields a predictable litany of villains while seriously nullifying the dramatic interest.

Liman’s an interesting choice for the material. The film is on some levels a straight variation of his action comedy “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” This is another variation of the marriage comedy, except in this case the screwball comedy premise is dramatically altered by the seriousness of the issues involved. The movie is adapted from separate books by Plame and her husband, Clinton-appointed expert in African affairs Joseph Wilson. Sean Penn plays the former ambassador with a bullying mixture of savvy and self-righteousness.

Liman also photographed the movie. As a talented Hollywood director (“The Bourne Identity”), Liman has an obvious grasp of the requirements of the large action format. At the start the movie has the lift and verisimilitude in contrasting the different theaters at play as it shuttles briskly and confidently between the Beltway politics of Wilson’s world and the exotic foreign locations of Plame’s work.

Opening in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, the best stuff focuses on Plame’s covert work as an anti-proliferation expert who’s tracking rogue nation states or terrorist networks actively trying to acquire high grade weapons material. The movie grounds her work against the political atmosphere of Washington and underscores the pressure put on the agency to find evidence to support the administration’s claims of Iraq’s aggressive attempt at becoming nuclear capable.

There’s a terrific scene, set at the CIA, where Lewis (Scooter) Libby (David Andrews), Cheney’s dogmatic, indefatigable chief of state, grills a group of analysts in a cool effort to break down their intelligence that argues sanctions had previously wiped out the country’s high grade weapons making capabilities.

In Watts’ concentrated performance, she essays the contradictory and strangeness of Plame’s peculiar dual life. Watts makes clear that Valerie was herself a performer, an actor, who capably handled the distinction between the harsh realism and high stakes implicit in her work as an undercover operative at the same time she assiduously covets the vestiges of a traditional suburban Washington wife and mother to the couple’s twin young children.

As Valerie pursues her important work, trying to find her own human assets to clarify the state of Iraq’s capabilities to acquire a weapon of mass destruction, Joe Wilson’s something on agitator who clearly enjoys the limelight. With President Bush, vice president Dick Chaney and their power team in office, he now stands on the political sidelines and is running a political consultancy company.

Their world is fundamentally altered after Wilson writes a notorious New York Times opinion article disputing the president’s 2003 State of the Union address that asserted Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein had acquired from an unidentified Africa state sufficient amount of nuclear fissured “yellowcake.” Wilson’s argument was buttressed by a fact-finding mission he undertook a year earlier to Niger to refute a similar CIA report.

In an act of political skullduggery that followed, several Washington political journalists whose own interests were aligned with the Bush administration identified Plame’s cover as a CIA operative and implied Wilson’s investigation was prompted by her own political nepotism to legitimize his own political aspirations.

In the fallout, Plame is quickly frozen out of her ongoing field cases, the most important an operation to smuggle out of war-torn Iraq a number of prominent nuclear scientists. This brave, highly skilled technician and specialist is suddenly frozen out by her superiors. The tone appears horrendous off and false in both the subtleties and particulars. The movie turns increasingly hysterical, strident and self-righteous.

Penn’s Wilson is Quixote dreamer who suddenly put in the position of tilting at windmills, a lone wolf challenging “the most powerful men in the world.” There’s a particularly risible scene where Wilson’s meeting with two African diplomats is interrupted by an aggressive female journalist (who is presumably Judith Miller, the discredited New York Times reporter who served time in jail for contempt by refusing to reveal the source of Plame’s blown cover).

It is symptomatic of the movie’s squandered opportunities that Liman never gets at a fundamental question of how these clear opposites, a liberal showoff and a public servant working for the country’s intelligence and spy divisions, ever hooked up in the first place. Plame is the daughter of an Air Force colonel (played in the movie by Sam Shepard) who clearly admires the meaning and virtue of the CIA. She has a critical exchange with her husband where she talks about her early mettle and skill she displayed and the value and self-worth she derived from the experience.

That is the more compelling story of their attraction, competitiveness and differences, or perhaps the guilt she experience for the professional manner she was forced to deceive friends and colleagues. The early scenes have a momentum and cumulative detail and interest. But the deeper the story goes, the more rote and uninteresting it turns.

As their professional lives play out, their marriage is strained and on the verge of a complete rupture. But for the most part, we stay too far outside both characters. In “Fair Game,” Liman hits the points, but somehow misses all the right notes.