Imagine a glamorous spy comes to dinner to dish the latest clandestine struggle! Now you want to be a spy or at least play one in a good film. If so, then Fair Game is for your eyes. It was screened as part of Fort Worth’s Modern Cinema; with a release date of November 2010, and it is a very good film about a strong woman, who just happens to be a real spy.
We meet Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) in the exotic locale of Kuala Lumpur, a densely populated Muslim country. The story follows her from that task to her testimony before the House. In between Valerie and husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) take life as it comes juggling love, time, and money. The pursuit of wealth has to take a back seat for now. Mrs. Plame-Wilson is at the top of her game -nabbing Muslim players in mid-sentence without blowing cover. She lies for a living and cool is her stock in trade, a real-life Mrs. Smith who fools everyone but is no one’s fool – yet. We are not privy to the actual catharsis of this CIA operative. It occurs off-screen and beyond the range of this excellent biopic. What are in range is the Robert Novak newspaper column of 2003 outting a covert CIA operative and its impact on Valerie Plame and Joe WIlson.
We know the subsequent history – Valerie Plame writes her own declaration of independence Fair Game: How a Top CIA Agent Was Betrayed by Her Own Government, translated with precision by director by Doug Liman (The Bourne Trilogy). Fair Game picks up the pace during an official debriefing; Valerie blurts out that she knows the perfect person to fact-check the aluminum tubes story and purchase of yellow cake in Niger, Africa. This is Joe’s turf; he knows the people and the land. Thus Joe follows the yellow cake road to Niger, Africa, sent indirectly by his wife’s ‘innocent’ promotion.
Joe agrees reluctantly. He knows he won’t find a damn thing because there is nothing left in Niger and nowhere to hide nuclear weapons. He looks, sees only deforested roads. He returns without the “right” answer.
Sean Penn hides behind “Joe’s” beard and long hair. He’s the pensive journalist, and plays a safe hide-and-seek act but manages to deliver a focused performance. He singlehandedly makes the Bush White House most unhappy and we buy it. The Niger 24/7 media spin locks Joe’s attention. He snaps out of his ennui when Condoleezza Rice loops: “I hope the smoking gun is not a mushroom cloud” – reaches critical mass. It’s a cloud he needs to catch. On the other hand Scooter Libby (David Andrews) and George Tenet, find consensus (recall the Italian letter and enriched uranium) for their plan to invade Iraq.
It is Scooter Libby’s job to deliver a scary-good performance within a film that I think will be queued for Oscar. The liberal crowd will love its bold revisit of hoary headlines. They will identify with the angry crowds Joe argues before and his growing disdain as he witnesses the media replay of the unthinkable – an Iraq invasion.
My strongest criticism of Fair Game is how it somehow manages to hide the real grit and grind of authentic spy life. Instead it feeds us a steady diet of ”isn’t this glitter lovely?” But those sparkles do not trash or overwhelm the experience. It is definitely worth meeting in a dark room, and make no mistake it is a strong experience; We care about Valerie and Joe. Because we know why they cannot balance the war effort equation that includes yellow cake squared, divided by Niger. Joe, then Valerie, knows these do not equal invasion of Iraq.
For all the drama, this is not the end of the story. It gets worse. Exactly six months after the invasion of Iraq, Joe begins typing his own declaration of independence that takes the form of: “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” Wilson’s written rant is within the scope of the film and pushes Liman’s taut dramatic accelerator so hard that it overheats (in a good way) with the rage of Plame and Wilson as their lives unravel before the world. It is all about Valerie Plame and the end of her government career. One can never step in the same river twice.
In the final third of the film we find melodrama. Crucified covert cries: “I was wrong; I do have a breaking point.” She breaks and so does the marriage, precipitated by Joe’s suggestion that they hit back with a Vanity Fair spread. She blows and removes her feet from the fire, going home to mom and dad. While there, Valerie has an epiphany and decides not to sacrifice the marriage to the government. Naomi Watts’ Valerie is on fire as she fights finally to clear her name.
In the meantime, Joe is alone with the five o’clock news – where comforting talking heads recycle the “CIA leak” for which there is no undo button – and as quickly as the media turned on Plame they pivot facing Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, telling Chris Matthews gleefully “Valerie Plame is fair game.” Joe and Valerie are both stunned at this gospel since the end of their nightmare is in sight: A determined Valerie joins Joe the crusader. We watch the obligatory newsreel of the real Valerie Plame in sworn testimony before Congress. We applaud and wish it were a work of fiction.
Running Time 106 minutes.