Monday, April 18, 2011

Fair Game: Grade A


Fair Game (2010)

Sean Penn, Naomi Watts. Director Doug Liman.

I give this movie high marks because I am a sucker for political thrillers, and this one is not bad, although somewhat disappointing. Penn is Joe Wilson, the ex-ambassador to African countries who investigated the White House claim that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium from Niger. Wilson found that not to be true, but George W. Bush went ahead and gave it as a justification for invading Iraq, in his State of the Union of 2001.

Outraged by the lie, Wilson wrote an op-ed in the NY Times explaining what he had NOT found in Niger. In retaliation, the White House “outed” his wife, undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame (Watts), in clear violation of the law. Her career was ruined, their lives were ruined, and the marriage went on the rocks. Should they fight back? How can you fight the White house?

The film clings closely to documentary form, careful to show actual television broadcasts featuring Bush, Cheney, Rice, and “Scooter” Libby, all hewing to party line and basically lying through their teeth. A sub-drama is that when Plame is fired, her operation of rescuing informants in Baghdad is abandoned, leaving all her personal promises to those people broken and their lives in peril. Just another hardball day at the CIA.

Watts gives a scintillating performance; best I’ve ever seen her, and the movie is worth watching for that alone. Plus, she looks a lot like Valerie Plame, which adds realism. Penn has a few moments, but the brilliant actor we know he is, cannot be seen. I gather he was interested in putting his name and reputation behind this polemical movie, but not much interested in acting. He’s good: He’s Sean Penn, after all, but he is mostly a placeholder here. This is a Watts vehicle and she fills it.

The directing and overall storytelling are slightly disappointing. The movie sticks to the historical facts, but unless you are well informed on American political infighting, it will not come across as a suspenseful tale. There is little personal peril, and little drama, as there was in All The President’s Men, for example, or in the fictional Absolute Power. The story is strictly focused on political machinations. The relationship between Wilson and Plame is mildly interesting, but mundane, and clearly secondary to the political story. For me, the political story was gut-wrenching, and it was very unpleasant to re-live the nightmare of that time. But I think for most people, the story will seem flat, not a “thriller” at all.

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