Dirty politics get downright personal as director Doug Liman and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth mash up Valerie Plame's Fair Game and her husband Joseph Wilson's The Politics of Truth into one potent exposé of Washington malfeasance and reckless public deception in a manufactured march to war. A slightly cold but undeniably captivating marriage drama set against the backdrop of a national scandal, Fair Game is acted with conviction and skillfully scripted, raising thoughtful questions about what it means to be a patriot in times of peril while revealing the high cost of playing hardball in the capital. And though it likely isn't the first (nor the last) time the White House nearly destroyed a marriage, the Plame case is certainly one of the most unique, given the unusual ways that its mutual protagonists' roles in politics intersected with their personal relationship. Like the best stories, it would have seemed too far-fetched to be true had we never read the headlines or heard the names on the nightly news.
The story begins on October 7, 2001 -- the day the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. As rumblings in Washington lead the President to suspect that Saddam Hussein has been stockpiling the plutonium needed to create weapons-grade plutonium for the production of a nuclear weapon, CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) brings in her husband, Joe (Sean Penn) -- who had previously been a diplomat to Iraq and various African countries under President George H.W. Bush, as well as President Bill Clinton's Senior Director of African Affairs on the United States Security Council -- as a consultant. Traveling to Africa as a representative of the U.S. government, Joe uses his resources and contacts to conduct a thorough investigation, ultimately concluding that there is no way Iraq could have purchased "yellow cake" in Niger undetected.
Subsequently concerned that his findings have been distorted due to President George W. Bush's and Vice President Dick Cheney's war-like rhetoric leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Joe publishes a New York Times op-ed entitled "What I Didn't Find in Africa" to make the public aware that if the White House has been using his findings as a justification for invading the country, they are misinterpreting the facts. One week after that article is published, Washington Post reporter Robert Novak publicly names Valerie as a CIA operative in his syndicated weekly article. Devastated due to the fact that she has multiple active contacts in the field, and that they will most certainly be targeted by Saddam's henchmen, the woman who has always prided herself on her professionalism and devotion to family finally reaches her breaking point, just as her husband rolls up his sleeves to slug it out with some White House heavy hitters. As the powers that be offer up vice presidential adviser Scooter Libby (David Andrews) for the slaughter, Valerie and Joe fight to stay true to their convictions and save their marriage.
In the opening scene of Fair Game, Valerie and Joe sit in a Washington, D.C. bar with a group of friends, watching the news as the White House announces that the U.S. has begun bombing Afghanistan. Everyone is still shell-shocked by the 9/11 terror attacks, and their inebriated debate over the politics of fear could well be an echo of a conversation any of us had on that historic day. However, in addition to reminding us of the heated public debates playing out in bars and homes across America at the time, it also serves a greater purpose within the context of the film -- to set up the character of Joe Wilson as a man who will always argue for what he believes in, regardless of the consequences. It's an early indicator that the Butterworth brothers have as firm a grip on their characters as they do the politically charged climate of the day, and it's an effective way to set up a story exploring icy wartime politics and the chilling effect they had on a marriage so inexorably bound to the government. Though at times it does feel as if the Butterworths are sacrificing story detail for brevity -- especially in scenes involving one of Valerie's active operatives (an Iraqi scientist whose promise to be protected by the U.S. government highlights the tragedy of betrayal) -- the performances in those brief scenes are powerful and, for the most part, their bid to show the far-reaching effects of such a profound betrayal of trust is very effective.
Given the level of onscreen talent involved, it's little surprise that it's so easy to get swept up in the story. As a couple whose marriage has been strained to the breaking point, Penn and Watts display a chemistry that makes us feel the gravity of their situation, and Sam Shepard makes a lasting impression as Valerie's father in a brief but telling scene that exposes her true character. The screen oozes smugness every time Andrews steps into frame as the cocksure Scooter Libby, and while Liraz Charhi shines as a former Iraqi citizen who reluctantly agrees to help the CIA, her character feels sorely underwritten. Brooke Smith also gets a great moment as one of Valerie's closest friends, who never suspected that her shopping buddy was a genuine spy.
Editor Christopher Tellefsen uses his sharp sense of timing to accentuate the effects that the scandal is having on Valerie and Joe's marriage and gives the film a much-needed sense of levity by placing emphasis on revealing character beats. And while his energetic visual style seems notably toned down here, director Liman does a commendable job of bringing all of the elements together so that the complicated story isn't just coherent, but carries emotional weight as well.
A frequent response when someone is asked if they've read a popular book is "I'll wait for the movie." In the case of Fair Game, you'd have to read two books, and a filing cabinet's worth of government documents. Of course, everyone knows there's no way that a two-hour movie can offer a comprehensive account of a case that has so many personal and political angles, but the creative forces behind Fair Game have come pretty close, and in the process they've raised some very fascinating questions about the abuse of power, the fragile nature of the truth, and the importance of standing up for what you really believe is right.