film review: FAIR GAME

My conversion is now complete: I am a card-carrying Naomi Watts fan. I don’t know why I wasn’t her biggest booster before; I’ve liked her work in films as diverse as King Kong and The Painted Veil, but after seeing her this year in Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child, Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger and now Fair Game, I am hooked. She is the real deal, and she gives yet another terrific performance as CIA agent Valerie Plame. The fact that she’s working opposite the extraordinary Sean Penn, as Joe Wilson, only ups the ante.

What I like best about this film is that it doesn’t treat its torn-from-the-headlines pedigree as a shield or a battering ram to win us over. It takes a more matter-of-fact approach, as indicated by an early dinner-party scene in which a group of friends—

—(including the Plame and Wilson characters) get into a political discussion and Penn’s character loses his cool. That seemingly ordinary scene serves as a template for the film as a whole. It treats its protagonists as real people, living their lives—raising two young children, sharing responsibilities around the house, engaging in the sometimes-petty, sometimes-impatient conversations that any married person would recognize.

It just happens that Plame is an experienced undercover operative for the U.S. government who takes her job seriously—and has to camouflage what she does for a living from even her closest friends. Her husband is a former diplomat who works as a political consultant. When he sees how the White House is “selling” the war on Iraq based on faulty evidence about Weapons of Mass Destruction, he is inflamed, and writes an op-ed column that unwittingly changes the course of his life—and his family’s as well.

Even if you think you know all about the Plame-Wilson saga from following the story when it broke in 2003, I think you’ll find Fair Game worthwhile, because it portrays the human side of the headline story. Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth based their screenplay on the couple’s dual books on the subject, and Doug Liman has directed the film with a sense of intimacy and immediacy. Obviously, this is a partisan project which takes Plame and Wilson’s point of view, but I think it does so with credibility—and history on its side.

Best of all, it provides solid parts for a well-chosen cast, including such stalwarts as Noah Emmerich, Bruce McGill, Sam Shepard and many others (even in small parts), but its success rests largely on the shoulders of its stars, two of the finest actors working today.

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June 2024