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Fair Game

Engrossing Political Drama

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

On July 6th, 2003, three-and-a-half months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, The New York Times published an editorial, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa?,” by former U.S. diplomat Joseph C. Wilson. In the editorial, Wilson revealed a trip, made at the behest of the Bush White House through Vice-President Cheney’s office, to investigate claims that Iraq, specifically Saddam Hussein, purchased or attempted to purchase 500 tons of yellowcake uranium from the small African country of Niger.

Wilson found no evidence to support the uranium-Niger connection, but in a pre-war speech, Bush included that claim as one of several reasons to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein.

Wilson’s editorial serves as the pivot point for Fair Game, Doug Liman’s (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Swingers) dramatization of the events leading to and from that editorial, specifically the consequences to Wilson’s (Sean Penn) wife, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), an undercover CIA operative who specialized in counter-proliferation (i.e., weapons of mass destruction).

As anyone who closely followed the news surrounding the genesis of the editorial and its aftermath will recall, the Bush White House, led by Karl Rove, Cheney, and Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby (David Andrews), revealed Plame’s identity to conservative political columnist Robert Novak in an attempt to discredit Wilson and his then-controversial editorial and, by extension, liberal and progressive criticism of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.

Based on Joseph Wilson’s non-fiction book, “The Politics of Truth,” and Valerie Plame’s memoir, “Fair Game,” Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth’s screenplay depicts Wilson as a flawed man, smart, experienced, but also short-tempered and, on more than one occasion, self-righteous and even bullying. Coupled with arrogance and stubbornness, Wilson’s monomania when it comes to the Niger claim leads to unintended consequences, including the loss of business relationships and strain on his marriage to Plame, who, at least in Fair Game is defined by her serious-minded dedication to her work for the CIA and her unwillingness to defend herself in the media.

That contrast, between Wilson’s stubbornness and Plame’s passivity (and the increasing tension and conflict in their marriage, helps to save Fair Game from becoming yet another listless, preachy political thriller. The criticism of the decision to invade Iraq is still there, but it’s muted and pushed to the background to examine the personal and emotional consequences of Wilson’s editorial and Plame’s outing as an undercover CIA operative.

It certainly doesn’t hurt, of course, that Liman paired up Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, two of the best actors of their generation, to play Wilson and Plame, respectively. Penn gives another flawless performance by, unsurprisingly, playing a flawed man guided, driven, obsessed by ideals to expose himself and his family to the metaphorical slings and arrows of the Bush White House at its most powerful.

Watts admirably captures Plame’s cool professionalism in the field and in Washington, D.C. Gradually, without histrionics, Watts reveals Plame’s vulnerabilities, increasingly ineffective restraint to Wilson’s assertive, confrontational nature, the unraveling of their marriage, and finally the decision to appear before a congressional committee examining the leak of Plame’s name and covert status to the media.

That makes Fair Game less the advertised “political thriller” (difficult, if not impossible, given the suspense-free conclusion) and more a relationship drama that explores the consequences of attempting to fight the Powers-That-Be, a fight that can be sometimes won, but often at great personal and professional expense. Fair Game also serves as a useful reminder of the ideologically driven hyper-partisanship that’s marred our nation’s politics over the last twenty years with no end in sight.