Political junkies already know the tale of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson. Those who don't know about the sordid affair are the target audience for Doug Liman's film Fair Game, based on Plame's memoir of the same name and Wilson's memoir The Politics of Truth.
Fair Game proves most effective at dramatizing the path to war, lined with coercion, bad intel, and pretexts for a foregone conclusion. Beltway power couple Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) find themselves under attack after diplomat and consultant Joe poo-poos what George W. Bush called "the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud": Saddam Hussein's purported purchase of yellowcake uranium from Niger. Wilson's investigation finds no threat, but the war machine doesn't stop, leading Wilson to poison-pen the New York Times op-ed "What I Didn't Find in Africa."
Somewhere in the shadows, senior Bush adviser Karl Rove decides, "Wilson's wife is fair game," precipitating the outing of Plame as a CIA covert operations officer. Her operations burnt (and her contacts in danger), Plame's career implodes. And thus begins "the war at home," on two fronts: in the media and in the house of Plame and Wilson. The slander, with impunity, by credulous media outlets sends Wilson into a full-court press of interviews and magazine profiles. Plame, whose secret life hasn't prepared her to deal with the spotlight, suffers under the unexpected attention as she strives to clean up the messes of her suddenly inactive operations.
Serving as his own director of photography, Liman (The Bourne Identity) shoots it all in his signature self-conscious shaky-cam, but the film never gets past the perception of stars playing public figures (though David Andrews does a nice turn as the Veep's hunting dog "Scooter" Libby). The film's midpoint turn from intrigue to domestic squabbling serves the impression that Fair Game is a rather perfunctory TV movie writ large. Certainly solid, Watts and Penn both have their moments (Watts nails a speech about her newfound breaking point; Penn shows admirable restraint), but they're asked to sell some fairly corny lines in the script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth.
Liman tells the story with simmering righteous indignation that comes to a boil in some didactic salvos. He shows Bush saying, "We seek peace; we strive for peace. And sometimes peace must be defended," then cuts to the middle-class family of an innocent Iraqi scientist under siege during a U.S. bombing. The film climaxes with Penn's Wilson delivering a lecture to wide-eyed students. Fair Game will connect most to just such an audience, seeking a dramatized education in "Plamegate." Those who read the daily news, on the other hand, may find it all respectable but rather soggy.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]