Fair Game, directed by Doug Liman, is the cinematic interpretation of the Valerie Plame story, starring Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, Joe Wilson. The film’s flaws are many, but they share the same root cause: the film’s creators forgot to dramatize the narrative.
Scooter Libby outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent is an amazing story in itself. In the time leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration was paranoid over what might have happened in the First Gulf War had things gone differently—Saddam had allegedly been only six months away from building a nuclear weapon.
The film is partially a study of paranoia—the presence of Scooter Libby at the CIA signals that the White House doesn’t trust other departments to go about their business, and later in the film, when a former Iraqi military scientist is asked whether Saddam has or is developing WMDs, he responds in the negative, adding: “They know this. They must know,” referring to the American government. The film also features a fair amount of carefully chosen television news, including speeches by President Bush and highly pixelated clips of Al-Jazeera.
While the allusions to media saturation and paranoia are relevant, neither can make up for the lack of a dramatic plot or interesting characters. The film is set up as a thriller: from the get-go we go through successions of short cuts. Watts’ interpretation of Plame receives minimal screen time aside from her too-perfect responses to questioning while undercover and unmoving exchanges with her husband and her father.
Joe Wilson writes an op-ed in the New York Times calling out the Bush Administration for trumping up charges against Niger in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. Penn plays an outspoken, albeit patriotic man who is often telling the truth. The problem is he’s not interesting and becomes difficult to listen to over the course of the film.
Films should be evaluated on their own terms. As an adaptation of the news, Fair Game succeeds as a slow recollection of some of the hysteria that preceded the Invasion of Iraq. This will be a great film to show our children in history classes, but frankly, I’d prefer if they read about it instead. In its final act, the film morphs into a kind of patriotic-let’s-together-for-ourselves piece of American pride complete with Sean Penn lecturing passionately to a group of college students.
After Plame is outed by Libby, the CIA shuts down Plame’s operation leaving an Iraqi military scientist to die, along with practically everyone else in the young doctor’s family. When the doctor’s sister, played by Liraz Charhi, confronts Plame about the whereabouts of her family, she reacts unconvincingly with minimal emotion to the news that nearly everyone in her extended family has been butchered, completing the half-baked subplot.
Earlier in the film, Charhi’s character asks Plame how she is able to lie. Plame responds that one must always know why one is lying and to never forget the truth. Despite a valiant effort to stick to the facts, there is little truth to be taken from Fair Game.