Following “Green Zone” as another slightly dated attack on the Bush administration’s mishandling of Iraq, “Fair Game” serves up impeccable politics with a bit too much righteous outrage and not quite enough solid drama. Doug Liman’s film does a respectably intelligent job of spinning the Valerie Plame affair into a sleek mainstream entertainment that means to rouse one’s patriotic ire and at times stirringly succeeds. But the overall conception feels too streamlined to maximize the impact of leads Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, spelling an uncertain fall B.O. reception by a public that’s proven none too game for topical fare.
“Fair Game” was adapted by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth from books written by the saga’s two central figures, former CIA operative Plame and her husband, retired ambassador Joe Wilson. Pitched at the intersection of international and domestic affairs, it’s the story of a D.C. marriage thrust into the spotlight when, in 2003, high-placed White House officials leaked Plame’s covert status to the media — a spiteful act of betrayal intended to discredit Wilson and his dissenting opinion on the presence of WMD in Iraq.
A low-key spy-thriller opening set in 2001 Kuala Lumpur — presumably fictitious, though it’s hard to tell from Plame’s heavily redacted memoir — introduces Valerie (Watts) as a skilled CIA operative who, when not running missions overseas, has a busy but happy home life with older husband Joe (Penn) and their twin children. With President Bush making the case for war from every TV screen, the CIA is working overtime to confirm the existence of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear (pronounced “nucular” by one overzealous agent, echoing a real-life Bushism) program — something Joe, an outspoken Democrat, regards with the utmost skepticism.
When the agency hears that Iraq may be buying yellowcake uranium from Niger, Joe, an expert on the Western African nation, is sent to investigate. He concludes there’s no basis to the assertion — not that it matters to the White House, which deliberately misconstrues his report as one more pretext for war. Furious, Joe pens a New York Times op-ed piece pointing out Bush’s misstatement of the facts.
Eight days later, the Times publishes a devastating rebuttal in the form of Robert Novak’s column, which blows Valerie’s cover and effectively ends her career — a leak the film traces back to Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby (a poisonous, spot-on comic turn by David Andrews). Valerie’s blown cover has major repercussions for an Iraqi source who soon finds himself in the path of Bush’s shock-and-awe campaign, a subplot that feels both apocryphal and manipulative.
From there, pic becomes a simmering portrait of a marriage under intense strain not only from the outside world — as the media charge the Wilsons with nepotism and treachery — but also from within: Valerie, her professional and personal life in ruins, wants to move on, but Joe refuses to let the matter rest and lashes back via the TV news circuit (Andrea Mitchell, Chris Matthews and Fox News are among those referenced).
Necessarily condensed for the screen, the marital drama as presented is clear, effective and emotionally precise; even before disaster strikes, Watts and Penn (in their third screen pairing, after “21 Grams” and “The Assassination of Richard Nixon”) realize some strong, moving moments as a couple trying to balance family and career obligations.
But at 105 minutes, “Fair Game” is almost too smooth and clean-burning an engine, short-changing key details and relegating juicy incidents (such as a Vanity Fair photo shoot) to mere exposition. One can admire Liman’s economy, as well as his return to form after the lamentable “Jumper,” but all the elements seem in place for a longer, denser and even more excoriating expose of political corruption at the expense of middle-class Americans. (Such a film would certainly have made a bigger target of Karl Rove, who was eventually identified as a source of the leak but, unlike Libby, never prosecuted.)
Watts has no trouble conveying Valerie’s supreme competence, something the agent’s peers are often quick to underestimate based on her looks, but the material doesn’t allow her to convey the full magnitude of her character’s devastation at what she’s lost. Penn, his brow so lined that even his furrows have furrows, is almost cast too much in line with his offscreen persona, and there are a handful of sanctimonious moments here — particularly in the final stretch, in which the film becomes a straight-up lecture on civic duty — when one senses not Wilson but Penn wagging his finger at the audience.
For the first time since “Go,” Liman has opted to handle lensing duties himself, and the result has a slightly chilly, washed-out look, visually evoking the gray zone between private truths and public lies. Tech credits are pro all the way, with impressive but unobtrusive location shooting in Jordan, Egypt and Malaysia. John Powell’s music supports the action with an admirable lack of bombast.