The Japan release of “Fair Game” comes nearly 12 months after the U.S. opening and a week after the death of Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi. For a story all about U.S. involvement in Iraq and that other infamous depot, Saddam Hussein, the timing could be right on the money. Still, a sense of discomfort lingers in the air. Didn’t the whole involvement thing lead to the opening of a bloated can of worms (not to mention cries of lies, conspiracy and self-righteous hypocrisy)? And didn’t the whole world choke on the stench rising out of that can for, like, years?
“Fair Game” is based on the memoirs of former CIA agent Valerie Plame and her diplomat husband Joe Wilson, whose lives toppled into a cauldron of death threats and disgrace when a White House aide blew Plame’s cover in 2003 and endangered every covert-operations agent on her team. Sizzling, yes. Engrossing, certainly. At the same time, it recalls a whole era that, it may be said, was excruciatingly bad for the United States. President George W. Bush was adamant about taking his superpower might into Iraq, allegedly because Hussein had arsenals packed floor to ceiling with nuclear weapons.
When Plame submitted a report that there was no such evidence, and her husband went public with that report in an op-ed article in the New York Times, the White House retaliated by leaking Plame’s identity, and bulldozed its way into Bagdhad regardless. The economy was ailing, massive antiwar demonstrations were held worldwide — these things just slid off Bush’s back and he continued to sit in that plush chair in the Oval Office for another six years.
Getting back to the movie, “Fair Game” is well crafted, well performed and careful to keep excessive “told you so” lefty preaching in check, and though it may be amiss to call this entertainment fare, it does stimulate the brain cells in a way most spy movies fail to do. And the CIA folks seem smart and humane, as opposed to the White House people, who come off as more incompetent and majestically short-sighted than anything so authentic as evil. Usually in spy movies (“Salt,” anyone?) it’s the other way around.
Valerie (played by Naomi Watts) is a representative of the smart and humane corp — she’s a good mommy to her young children and loving wife of her ex-ambassador husband, Joe (Sean Penn). She’s dedicated to her job and, despite her Republican beliefs, ultimately values the truth over partisan politics.
Not that she could talk about such things. In real life and in the film, only her hubby and her parents knew Plame’s professional identity — even her best friends in suburban DC were convinced she was a financial analyst who went on frequent overseas business trips. Plame was trained and groomed as a top-notch covert agent and it was stipulated in her covert contract that if she were ever captured, the CIA would deny all knowledge of her activities.
At the beginning of the film, Valerie’s job is part of what makes her sexy to Joe (what husband wouldn’t get turned on by a spy wife?), but after the White House leak and headlines in The Washington Post, Joe treats Valerie as a comrade in arms, and their relationship takes on a new dimension.
And this is what makes “Fair Game” so compelling. The story (written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) does a neat zigzag from Valerie and Joe’s stately home surrounded by lush trees to the dusty streets of Niger, where Joe goes looking for evidence of a uranium sale that probably never happened, to the slums of Kuala Lumpur, then back to CIA headquarters before taking off again.
The balance of political thriller and personal marriage issues recall an expertly concocted martini, with an exact, mathematical ratio that induces a little sigh of awe. The precision storytelling is tempered by a shaky handheld camera that quite effectively enhances the emotional rage and panic that Watts’ Valerie struggles to keep in check.
Plame and Wilson survived the ordeal and are now raising their children in New Mexico, a fact which leads me to conclude that America is indeed the land of the free as well as book/movie contracts. On our own shores, victims of political strife — most likely secretaries of power-mongering cabinet members — get neither book deals nor redemption packages. But let’s not go there.