The facts are these. In 2003, Valerie Plame was outed as a CIA operations officer in the national press, following her husband Joseph Wilson’s public criticisms of the Bush administration and the war on terror.
Wilson had been sent on a fact-finding mission to Niger when the CIA was gathering intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, and objected when George Bush claimed that “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” This was contrary to his findings in Niger.
The leak of Plame’s identity, however, jeopardised several critical overseas operations in which she was involved. And yet, it has long been speculated that the leak was a deliberate attempt to discredit Wilson, to punish him for criticising the government, by depicting his fact-finding mission as a holiday, awarded by his wife, using taxpayers’ money.
Since this scandal unfolded, two memoirs have been based on the situation. Plame wrote Fair Game: My Life As A Spy, My Betrayal By The White House and Wilson penned The Politics Of Truth: Inside The Lies That Led To War And Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity: A Diplomat’s Memoir. Doug Liman’s film, Fair Game, is based on the former, and while it’s unquestionably a more enthralling way of telling the story above, it also feels like it comes a little too soon.
The trailers touted this one as a thriller in the vein of Salt, in which a devoted mother is publicly outed as a CIA agent and action ensues. This is a back to front way of telling the film’s version of events, which begins with Valerie Plame in the field, and gets into the leak and the scandal after a full hour of screen time has passed.
Perhaps that’s counterproductive on the part of the distributors, to misleadingly market a film that is so indignantly furious about media misconceptions, and doggedly advocates the truth over deception. But Fair Game treads a line between biopic and political thriller without ever planting its feet in either territory.
I don’t think it’s a biopic, because, although you can’t miss how wronged the film versions of Plame and Wilson have been, the film’s too outraged and politically minded to really get too close to them as characters. And I wouldn’t call it a political thriller either, on the grounds of it not being particularly thrilling.
If I had to pick just one classification for this one, it would be docudrama. It’s a docudrama that stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, I’ll grant you, but it feels oddly more like a sprawling Crimewatch reconstruction of a political scandal than it feels like a film.
For one thing, I found the casting of Sean Penn as Wilson to be quite problematic. Whenever Penn comes out with anything political, I can’t help but be reminded of Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski, stubbornly asking “Am I wrong?” over and over again. He’s impassioned, certainly, but his being there distracted from the meat of the story, for me.
Naomi Watts is understated, but strong as Plame, and she just so happens to bear a striking resemblance to the real life Plame, whom we glimpse in the coda during the credits. There can be no question of the fact that Penn and Watts are acting their socks off, but it’s somehow less potent than a documentary would have been.
The film makes copious usage of real life news footage anyway, and it only served to heighten my feeling that it was made too soon. The indignation around the scandal may still be raw and topical, but the lack of room for artistic licence counts against it in many ways.
At its best, we see David Andrews typifying the syllogistic stance of the Bush administration as Scooter Libby, with his grilling of a CIA higher up who’s confused by the government’s mixed messages about the intelligence they’ve gathered. And somewhere out of sight, Dick Cheney is apparently orchestrating the whole thing like the emperor from Star Wars.
Fair Game is not uninteresting, and nor is it poorly made. But I feel like it is ultimately floating somewhere in the periphery of the events that happened, rather than retelling a true human story. It has enough brio to be getting on with, but a documentary, with contributions from the real people and about the same use of news footage for context, could have been far more potent.
On Blu-ray, Fair Game gets an absolutely stunning transfer. The HD picture is top-notch, with a sometimes startling amount of facial detail,especially when Penn is on screen. The sound is also very good, for what’s essentially a very talkative drama film, with certain set pieces like a bombing in Iraq showing off the great sound mix.
The only extra that accompanies this feature is a commentary by the real Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, and watching the film a second time with their observations and anecdotes was honestly a lot better. It only cements the notion that a documentary with their insights would have been more apt.