Hunting party

Fair Game relives Bush administrations outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame

Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame, in the crosshairs of the Bush administration.

Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame, in the crosshairs of the Bush administration.

Fair Game
Starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. Directed by Doug Liman. Pageant Theatre. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

Director Doug Liman has a lively track record with quirky thrillers—Go! in 1999; The Bourne Identity, first in that series; and the gaudy misfire Mr. and Mrs. Smith. With Fair Game, he takes on some much-bruited events from recent history, gives it the initial trappings of a very offbeat sort of spy thriller, and then braids the various strands of the story into something rather more complicated than the souped-up rehash of a particularly reprehensible episode from the Bush administration’s spurious run-up to war in Iraq in 2003.

If Fair Game has the makings of a very political spy thriller, it’s simply because Valerie Plame-Wilson (wife of former U.S. diplomat Joe Wilson) was a CIA agent deeply involved in crucial intelligence operations in the Middle East. And if the actual film veers away from the conventional satisfactions of spy stories and political thrillers alike, it’s because Liman and company are smart enough to know that it would be foolish to do otherwise.

The Plame/Wilson/Bush/WMD story is too much a matter of the historical record to permit, much less require, a suspenseful retelling and too much a part of an ongoing international debacle to allow room for any grand, crowd-pleasing settling of accounts, whether moral, political or cinematic/generic.

What we get instead in this intriguingly elusive (but by no means evasive) movie is rewarding in several respects—a quietly complex evocation of the globally confounding age in which we find ourselves, a sidelong history lesson more inclined to raise questions than to give answers, and a deftly understated portrait of an extraordinary and somewhat baffling married couple.

Plame (an excellent Naomi Watts) and her husband (Sean Penn channeling Joe Wilson in uncanny fashion) are the film’s intimate and emotional touchstones in its picture of the social psychology of our globally deranged era. Their personal dramas put a pungently domestic bite into Fair Game’s social and political themes—the salacious drift of political discourse in the present era, the feverish and puerile mob-frenzies of the press and the electronic media, the excesses of unchecked power in the White House.

The film’s Wilsons are extraordinary in very matter-of-fact ways indeed, both do extraordinary work in what must necessarily be done, can only be done, in matter-of-fact, methodical fashion. And the film approaches their story, with its various smoldering dramas, in much the same way. The Bush administration’s outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent is a devastating blow to both the Wilsons, but the film maintains a sober and lucid perspective on the larger tragedies, national and international, set in motion and further accommodated by the White House’s blindly vengeful retaliation against Joe Wilson’s truth-telling.

Penn’s Joe Wilson is both a typical house husband and a dedicated international wheeler dealer, a bit of a pedantic weasel whose mostly latent zealotry can make him seem more of a loose cannon than he really is. Watts is a perfectly credible version of the Valerie Plame we see in a documentary clip at the finish—a good-looking blonde with the thoroughly professional demeanor of an intensely dedicated government operative. The remarkable bond between these two seems mysterious and even inexplicable, but also inescapably part of what is exceptional in both of them.

Sam Shepard has a gruffly incisive cameo as Plame’s father, a career USAF man. But the best of the supporting performances comes from David Andrews as “Scooter” Libby, the Machiavellian political hack who became the designated fall guy in the Plame/Wilson case.