Going Out
Naomi Watts and Sean Penn star in ‘Fair Game’.
A HOUSE DIVIDED Naomi Watts and Sean Penn star in ‘Fair Game’.

Game is on but rules are dirty

Daniel Carey

‘ALL The President’s Men’, Alan J Pakula’s film about the the Watergate burglary and cover-up which ultimately brought down Richard Nixon, ends with a warning from Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards.
Having been told that his house is bugged, Bradlee comes out into the garden in the middle of the night and tells reporters Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford): “Nothing’s riding on this, except the first amendment to the Constitution, the freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”
Doug Liman’s new ‘Fair Game’ clearly aspires to be an ‘All The President’s Men’ for the 21st century. It’s not in the same league, but it’s still worth checking out.
‘Fair Game’ is based on books by the two main characters, Valerie Plame (played by Naomi Watts) and her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn). Both leads are in fine form. Watts is the flick’s driving force, while Penn is perfectly cast.
To her friends, Plame is a venture capitalist married to a retired diplomat. In reality, she’s a CIA operative whose expertise is Weapons of Mass Destruction, and is instructed to focus on Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11.

Her husband, an old Africa hand, is sent to Niger to investigate whether the least-developed country in the world is conspiring with Saddam Hussein to produce WMDs. His answer is no, but he’s shouting into a gale as the march to war gathers pace.
The movie goes from Kuala Lumpur to Cairo, and from Amman to Baghdad. It also uses extensive footage from TV interviews and speeches by members of the Bush administration, including Condoleezza Rice’s famous line: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” The cartoonishly slimy Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby (David Andrews), Chief of Staff of Vice-President Dick Cheney, arrives into the CIA to crack heads.
Of course, no WMDs were ever found, and Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in ‘The New York Times’ in July 2003 entitled ‘What I Didn’t Find In Africa’ concluding that intelligence had been manipulated to justify the invasion of Iraq. The administration struck back, hard, and Plame was named in the Washington Post as a CIA operative, thus blowing her cover.
As well as ending her career, the leak also put her marriage under strain. Unlike ‘All The President’s Men’, where we learn little of Woodward or Bernstein’s private lives, this picture is at its most compelling when teasing out domestic drama. Wilson, never a man to keep his mouth shut, does the talk-show circuit. Plame, used to keeping her head down, suddenly finds herself receiving death threats and having her character trashed on TV.
Ultimately, ‘Fair Game’ feels somewhat underwhelming. Wilson refers to ‘the 16 words in President Bush’s State of the Union address that led us to war’, but can one really draw such a straight line between the Niger claim and the invasion? Were the stakes really that high? Weren’t the US going to war regardless?
The affair still divides America, and this big-screen treatment has come been panned by conservative critics for its sympathetic treatment of the principals. Even some liberals who feel its heart is in the right (or left) place found ‘Fair Game’ smug and strident. It reminded this viewer of ‘Green Zone’, the Matt Damon vehicle by Liman’s fellow Bourne  trilogy director Paul Greengrass: solid and serious, but overplaying the significance of its central story. In fact, given the amount of real-life clips that are woven into the narrative, it might have worked better as pure documentary.

Rating 6 out of 10