The U.S. government is going to have itself a war in Iraq and it is not going to tolerate any naysayers with their questions about the “lack of proof” of weapons of mass destruction in Fair Game, the story of former CIA agent Valerie Plame.
Or, at least, the story as adapted from her book, Fair Game, and her husband Joseph Wilson’s book, The Politics of Truth.
As shown here, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) is a good soldier of the American intelligence community. She has operations running all over the world, particularly the extremist-filled parts of the world, and is tracking potential threats to the U.S. Her status as a covert CIA agent, one who often uses other identities to get into a country and make contact with potential sources, is known only to her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), and her parents. And they know only the broadest strokes — that she’s in the CIA and, in Joe’s case, when she says she’s going to Cleveland on business, that’s likely not true. To the Wilsons’ friends, Valerie works for a venture capital firm in Georgetown and is the quiet half of the couple, the one who tries to calm Joe down when he turns into a pompous lecturer at dinner parties.
But Plame’s work is vitally connected to the run-up to the Iraq war. She is part of the team looking at information that some — mostly the White House — believe suggests that Iraq has an active nuclear program and is getting close to having nuclear weapons. Most people seem not to believe this, including Joe, who is contracted (but not paid) by the CIA to go to Africa and use his contacts to find out if there is any truth to reports that Iraq had purchased yellow cake uranium. These reports were false, Wilson ultimately decided based on his investigation, and so he was shocked when he heard President Bush mention the uranium in the State of the Union address as one of the pieces of evidence supporting an invasion.
So he writes an op-ed for the New York Times to explain his position. And in response, at least as it’s shown here, the White House leaks Plame’s name, effectively ending her career and calling into question Wilson’s report.
Naturally, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, George W. Bush, et al. come off pretty bad here. The adminsitration (to varying degrees, depending on who you’re talking about) deliberately misread intelligence about Iraq to justify the war. Anad, as the movie explains it, Plame’s identification leads to the deaths of several Iraqi scientists. Coming, as the movie’s information does, from books by Plame and Wilson, this is not surprising.
What is rather surprising is what a flaming jerkface the movie paints Wilson as. Sure — he felt the government was misleading the people and he spoke up. But the movie seems to balance out that good deed with scenes of Wilson jumping at television appearances (both before and after Plame is exposed). We see him run right over Plame and her career without ever really showing any kind of remorse. (And even before that, Plame is portrayed as a capable woman doing her best for family and country and Wilson is portrayed as a self-interested whiner.) The movie seems to be heading to a well-deserved “how could you be so careless” takedown of Wilson by Plame (who really comes off as the smarter, nicer half of the pair). But in the end, it sews itself up with a very weak scene of the Wilsons vowing to fight for … er, whatever, there’s some Penn speechifying and then movie’s over. And hey, check out this real-life footage of Plame testifying before Congress! (Actually, that footage was pretty cool and I stuck around to watch the snippet they played over the credits. She seems — from that footage and this movie — like exactly the kind of competent individual you hope is running operations at the CIA.)
The rushed ending highlights the movie’s biggest weaknesses. This is a big complicated story that happened over the course of years. Particularly once we get to the unmasking-of-Valerie part of the movie, actions seem compacted and every conversation feels like a compilation of oodles of conversations. I was left wanting more of Valerie and how she felt about everything that happened.
Despite all the shakiness, the story is fascinating, even if we’re just getting one point of view about this chapter of history. The performances are solid — Penn is so perfectly cast as a schmucky know-it-all that it’s hard to figure out what is the character and what is the actor. Watts is also well-cast. She offers a compelling portrait of a woman who enjoys her challenging job; I would have liked to see more about how she dealt with losing it.
Rated PG-13 for some language. Directed by Doug Liman and written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (from the books The Politics of Truth by Joseph Wilson and Fair Game by Valerie Plame), Fair Game is an hour and 48 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Summit Entertainment.