It’s difficult to know just how seriously to take Doug Liman as a filmmaker. His primary claim to fame as a director is The Bourne Identity (2002). After that he gave us Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) and—good heavens—Jumper (2008). One can only assume that Fair Game is a bid for credibility. If so, it’s a solid one, because Fair Game is one of the better and more sober political thrillers to come along in a while—and if it’s not quite in the same league as Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), it’s at least a game try.
Of course, Fair Game is likely to be a polarizing work because it frankly accepts the idea that the George W. Bush administration completely manufactured and falsified evidence in order to justify going to war in Iraq. While a great many people take that as a given, it’s not universally accepted, though I’ve yet to see a convincing case against it. Fair Game assumes that the viewer believes the claims against Bush and company—notably Dick Cheney and Karl Rove (Adam LeFevre, The Bounty Hunter), with Rove being the reported source of the statement that CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) was “fair game” to be sacrificed and vilified in the press in order to bolster the administration’s credibility. Moreover, it calmly and methodically names names—though it also telescopes or fictionalizes some characters and just plain omits others. I suspect it will be the film’s calm, non-hysterical approach that will be the thing that most inflames the fiery rhetoric that will surely follow.
Fair Game starts out shrewdly by pretending to be a standard spy picture, showing Plame at work against the forces of evil in Kuala Lumpur, but this is only a tease to establish her credibility as a CIA agent. The real story starts when her husband, Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), a former ambassador to and expert on Niger is called upon to investigate rumors of a large sale of yellow cake uranium to Iraq. What he finds is that not only did such a sale not take place, but that it frankly couldn’t have taken place. Imagine his surprise when the supposed sale is cited by the government as one of the reasons we went to war. Not surprisingly, but perhaps unwisely, Wilson writes his famous article for the New York Times, stating his findings and how they were deliberately ignored.
The upshot of his article is, of course, the government’s desire to discredit him—something that becomes much easier when it’s deliberately leaked to the press that Wilson’s wife is a CIA agent, who supposedly got him the job in question. Never mind that the job paid nothing. And never mind that the administration’s later efforts to minimize Plame, by leaking stories that she was everything from a mediocre agent to a secretary, would seem to argue against the likelihood of her being in a position to get Wilson a job. The art of the spin is that it doesn’t have to be persuasive or consistent, it merely has to cast doubt. Naturally, Plame loses her job and Wilson loses clients since they’ve been effectively branded as traitors. Their marriage becomes strained—not in the least because it is not in Plame’s nature to take her side of the story to the public.
What makes the film work is that it never underestimates the audience. In fact, it refreshingly assumes the viewer is capable of processing information, following a complex story and understanding a difficult emotional situation. All you have to do is compare the approach of Fair Game to the paint-by-numbers, simplified dramatics of Tony Goldwyn’s Conviction to see the level of accomplishment here. That’s not to say that Fair Game is perfect, nor would I say it quite makes the grade as a great film. It is, however, a very, very good film and one I highly recommend.
However, it’s as well to note again that Fair Game works from the idea that the Bush administration knew that they were selling the country and the Congress a bill of goods, that the war in Iraq was something they were determined to undertake—even if they had to manufacture the case. Whether that runs counter to your beliefs on the matter or you subscribe to the film’s take, it’s just as likely to anger you—but for very different reasons. Rated PG-13 for some language.