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Fair Game is a return to an earlier time we would like to pretend is much, much further in the past-- the dark days of Bush administration, as we were starting to understand the consequences of a war that had been trumped up on intelligence slowly revealed as misunderstood if not entirely fabricated. Thrust into the center of that ruse was Valerie Plame Wilson, a CIA agent operating under deep cover who was outed in what amounted to a petty strike against her husband, Joe Wilson, a former ambassador who pointed out in a New York Times op-ed that the "evidence" cited of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was entirely false.
This much is part of the historical record, at least vaguely remembered by anyone reading the papers at the time. Doug Liman's Fair Game purports to take us inside the scandal, looking at the fractures in the Plame-Wilson marriage as closely as the political motivations behind Plame's outing. But while well-shot in gray tones and featuring strong performances from Naomi Watts and Sean Penn-- though, when are they not good?-- Fair Game lacks the juice and drive to give us the outrage we may have felt when we first learned about the story. It's a movie about professionals trying to keep their game face intact, but much like Plame herself, it lets down its guard so rarely that it seems cold, uncompromising, and inaccessible.
Though the balance of storytelling between Plame and Wilson's marriage and the insider dealings at the CIA set Fair Game apart from most political thrillers, the union between these two extraordinary people feels remarkably pedestrian. They struggle with caring for their twin children, with spending any real time together and with respecting one anthers' personal secrets, but aside from the fact that Wilson isn't legally allowed to know where his wife goes on her secret mission, their problems feel no different from dozens of other marital dramas. Penn and Watts, while each digging deep into their own characters, never establish a spark that makes Plame and Wilson seem like especially close, respectful colleagues. That chilly distance creeping into their marriage obviously bothers them, but it's hard to ever imagine the two laughing together or coming home to talk about anything but work.
The scenes at the CIA do a great job of laying out the specifics of the situation, from when Plame first sent her husband on a fact-finding mission to Libya-- with the approval of her colleagues-- to the day Plame's name appeared in Robert Novak's column, effectively ending all her active missions for the agency. While the Washington scenes suffer a little from the doldrums of watching people in suits talk to one another under fluorescent lights, they are aided greatly by the story of the Iraqi informants Plame had been working to help escape the country. The characters are composites based on real life, and while it's a little manipulative to see the innocent women and children stranded on Iraqi streets that will be bombed in a matter of weeks, it's an important and stirring reminder of the real, human costs of petty Washington grudges.
Liman, whose career has jumped somewhat schizophrenically from the first Bourne-- a fantastical but also more stirring take on a spy story-- to his last film Jumper, acquits himself well through all the high-minded drama and restrained emotional impact of this film, but he also seems to be aiming so much for seriousness that he's afraid to make things more interesting. Fair Game is a drama for adults about big, life-and-death ideas, and God knows we've got to be grateful for such things. But for a story with so many rich characters and important ideas and almost unbelievable acts of cruelty to deal with, it slides by with grace but woefully little impact.