Movie News & Reviews

'Fair Game': real-life espionage and the dangers of being exposed

Naomi Watts and Sean Penn play Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson in Fair Game.
Naomi Watts and Sean Penn play Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson in Fair Game.

The lady isn't shy about showing a little leg. Maybe it lands her a meeting with the businessmen she deals with in her line of work.

But in some corners of the world, a creep could get the wrong idea. Fortunately, she's able to handle herself. She is, after all, a secret agent.

In the opening scene of Fair Game, Valerie Plame, played with matter-of-fact cunning by Naomi Watts, turns around an ugly situation and gets her man when we wonder whether he will get her first. The stakes become clear. This isn't James Bond or Jason Bourne, who leap tall buildings, dodge bullets and sip martinis. A real CIA agent, working in corners of the world where Americans aren't liked, deals with people who could do her harm. She risks her life, and others', to get hard intelligence and discern the intentions of America's enemies.

And somebody in the Bush White House gave her up. Plame, an undercover agent with an outspoken diplomat husband, was "fair game" in Washington in the run-up to the Iraq War.

In this politically charged tale, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) never goes beyond what the courts decided happened when political appointees and their sympathetic journalists broke the law and endangered Plame, her family and her many contacts in the field. Liman avoids bias by focusing on the personal. Fair Game is about a marriage and reputations torn asunder to make political hay.

The always-intense and left-leaning Sean Penn plays diplomat Joe Wilson, who raised a stink about George W. Bush's claims about Iraqi efforts to acquire nuclear materials. The film shows Wilson as a somewhat insufferable absolutist, given to insulting dinner guests who don't have the on-the-ground knowledge of geopolitics that he does.

When the government sends Wilson to Nigeria, where he'd long been stationed, to track down a rumor about Iraqi nuke shopping, he digs around and disproves it for them. And when George W. Bush twisted that very report as a justification for invading Iraq, Wilson got on his high horse and told the world. That high horse is what makes Penn so perfect for the part.

Bush people (David Andrews is Scooter Libby, Adam LeFevre is Karl Rove) move to discredit their critic. And the donnybrook begins, with Wilson struggling to save his reputation as his wife becomes collateral damage — outed by Libby (on whose orders we do not know), ending her career. She tries to quiet her husband, but nothing doing.

The movie has melodramatic moments: Plame must elude her employers as if they're Bourne Identity villains bent on making her disappear. And did Iraqis really die because of this leak?

But for every spycraft scene, every illustration of the deadly blowback from the leak that Liman dramatizes, the movie has half a dozen scenes of a delicately balanced home life turned on its head by a government bent on destroying one of its critics. The stalking by the press, the attacks by innuendo and the impotent rage of a husband unable to defend himself or his wife are much more chilling than the film's moments of fear that someone with a grudge against "the Agency" might show up at their house.

That makes Fair Game, as spy thrillers go, more chilling than thrilling. But when you're dealing with the real world, a powerful person taking away your career, your privacy and your safety is as serious as it gets.

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