The story of Valerie Plame—the CIA operative who was outed by Karl Rove and Scooter Libby to discredit her husband Joseph Wilson’s revelation that the Bush Administration had manipulated evidence of an effort on the part of Saddam Hussein to obtain African uranium as part of its push for the invasion of Iraq—is told adequately but with a surprising lack of urgency by Doug Liman in “Fair Game.” The picture feels as though it should be shown on HBO, which has made a number of similarly earnest torn-from-the-headlines docu-dramas, rather than in theatres, especially since public support for such politically sensitive pieces about the Iraq war has been modest at best.
Of course, few cable movies boast a cast quite as impressive as this one. Naomi Watts stars as Plame, who’s portrayed in the first half of the picture as one of the agency’s most active agents, assiduously collecting data on nuclear proliferation on dangerous trips abroad and recruiting Iraqi-Americans to contact relatives still in the Middle East who might be able to provide information on Saddam’s suspected nuclear development program.
When intelligence came in suggesting that the Iraqi strongman had been trying to purchase a large supply of yellowcake uranium from Niger, Plame’s superiors asked whether her husband, who knew the area from his previous diplomatic service, might be willing to go to Africa and write an assessment of the report. She was reluctant to do so, but eventually agreed, and so did Wilson. His conclusion was that the story was extremely unlikely.
Of course, the administration decided to use the allegation as part of its drive to justify an invasion of Iraq anyway, which led to the famous sixteen words in the President’s 2003 State of the Union address that seemed to validate the charge. Wilson responded with an Op Ed piece in the New York Times arguing that his findings showed the exact opposite, prompting White House operatives led by Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby (David Andrews) to attack his credibility. Part of that campaign was leaking the fact that Plame was a CIA agent to the press—thereby destroying her cover, and her career (and violating the law). As Rove supposedly told pundit Chris Matthews, as reported here, she was “fair game” in the counterattack on Wilson.
Much of what follows this exposition in the picture is largely domestic drama when lies are spread about Palme’s CIA service and the couple becomes estranged as public pressure on them mounts, disagreeing over how to respond to the situation—with Wilson insisting that they fight the attacks and Palme preferring to hunker down and keep quiet, hoping that the storm will pass. Of course, anyone with the slightest acquaintance with recent history will know how things turn out, legally at least. But the more intimate aspects of the story are well handled by Watts and Penn, with the former capturing Palme’s dedication and sense of purpose and the latter her husband’s more volatile spirit, while both persuasively convey the couple’s devotion to their two young children. Penn obviously relishes the opportunity to inveigh against the Bush administration and governmental corruption too—his heart is really in it.
On the other hand, the sections in which you’d expect Liman to excel—the more action-oriented ones—fall curiously flat. The scenes up front detailing Plame’s trips abroad are bland, and even more important, a plot thread involving a mission she headed to ferry a group of Iraqi nuclear scientists out of the country—derailed by her exposure and the craven reaction of CIA bigwigs—doesn’t carry the emotional punch it deserves. Even a young father’s drive through battle-scarred Baghdad with his son as bullets fly around them is less viscerally exciting than one would expect from a “Bourne” veteran.
Still, Liman acquits himself fairly decently as director, securing strong turns not only from his stars but from the supporting cast, including Sam Shepard in a single scene as Palme’s father. He also serves as his own cameraman, using the Washington locations as well as others in Jordan and Egypt nicely, and editor Christopher Tellefson keeps the various narrative strands clear. Jess Gonchor’s production design, Kevin Bird’s art direction and Sara Parks’s set decoration are all stellar, and John Powell’s score is solid as well.
But while “Fair Game” is a sound, respectable depiction of an especially disreputable episode in modern American politics, it misses the power of a classic like “All the President’s Men,” and will likely be more satisfying for those who made it than those who watch it.