Dir. Doug Liman
(2010, PG-13, 108 min)
★ ★

What’s wrong with Fair Game can best be observed in its depictions of infamous Bush administration officials Scooter Libby and Karl Rove. Libby (David Andrews), whose entrance could as easily have been scored to the Star Wars Darth Vader music, storms into the halls of the CIA, where he demands that someone make the case that Saddam Hussein is acquiring weapons of mass destruction; no one investigating Iraq believes there’s credible evidence, except one zealous half-wit who soon is briefing the President on aluminum rods. Later, Libby and Rove (Adam LeFevre) conspire to ruin covert operative Valerie Plame and her husband Joe Wilson, and they’re so cartoonishly sinister that even a good liberal like me can’t take any satisfaction. All they’re missing are white cats to stroke and mustaches to twirl.

Like Rendition before it, Fair Game, based on books written by Plame and Wilson, is a film where liberal outrage takes the place of story and character. I gave Rendition a positive rating of three stars, though in hindsight I don’t think it was a much better film. Perhaps it was less heavy-handed about torture than this film is about the Iraq War. Or maybe I just have liberal outrage fatigue.

The real Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson

Naomi Watts and Sean Penn star as Plame and Wilson. They’re terrific actors and do their best to bring life to characters who are essentially receptacles of the script’s political indignation. Consider how their stories develop. Early scenes show Valerie on the job, putting herself at risk for intel, then reassigned to the team investigating Iraq. It’s 2002; the wounds of 9/11 are still fresh and the Bush administration is considering an invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. What Valerie’s scenes are intended to convey is not anything about who she is but rather how little evidence there is to invade Iraq, and how little the President and his advisors seem to care.

Plame and Wilson have periodic dinners with friends. The friends are amateur pundits, talking about how scary Muslims are and how dangerous Hussein is, while the main characters bristle at the misinformation being spread, but the friends aren’t real characters. They’re examples of how easily led astray the American public was. Penn, whose liberal activism is well known, seems to more or less be playing himself in scenes where Wilson gives lectures on college campuses and argues with his wife about fighting the power.

I grew tired. Exposing Plame as retaliation against Wilson was the height of political cynicism for an administration that hit many such highs during its eight years, but the film doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know: there were no WMDs, there was pressure on the CIA to make the case for war, and so on. A documentary might have been better suited to parse all the details of the Plame affair; from a dramatization such as this I hoped for stronger characters and greater suspense. Director Doug Liman has directed very kinetic films like Go and The Bourne Identity, but here seems hamstrung by the politics. A straight-ahead thriller might have been the way to go, with political undertones instead of a loudspeaker.