'Fair Game': Replay of Old News
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Doug Liman, the director who gave us cinematic what for in "The Bourne Identity" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," might have been expected to plunge the real-life morality tale of "Fair Game" into an acid bath of outrage laced with dramatic, pulse-pounding suspense. But this wannabe political thriller comes off as old news, obviously manipulative and smugly self-righteous. And Liman missteps big-time by shooting the movie himself, laying on the kind of distracting camera work that's all jump and jitter, signifying nothing. The only honest work in "Fair Game" comes from Naomi Watts, an actress who couldn't cheat if she wanted to.
Sanctimoniously on the side of the angels, "Fair Game" imagines Valerie Plame (Watts), the CIA agent maliciously outed during the run-up to the Iraq war, as a fair-haired Joan of Arc personally and professionally immolated by Cheney and Company. As "propagandized" by Sean Penn, Plame's husband, Joe Wilson (who wrote the New York Times editorial that cast doubt on the existence of WMD in Iraq), comes off as a cardboard bloviator, given to speeches -- at his wife and various hapless dinner guests, on TV, in print and auditoria -- that promote the righteousness of Penn-Wilson as much as they do democracy.
We're introduced to Plame in the midst of unglamorous fieldwork overseas: She's all business, a professional spook tough as nails, sustained by bedrock integrity. It's clear this respected operative takes pride in what she does, believes that it actually counts for something. Watts seems to be playing in another movie besides the one in which she and the eternally bellowing Penn are tagged as the only righteous folk in a sea of corruption. That other movie might have tackled something rarely depicted on American screens: the life of a principled woman who loves and loses her profession, the very frame of her identity, her handle on reality. (One vicious news-hag needles, "Wasn't she just a secretary?") But that kind of nuanced, grown-up feminism doesn't sell tickets.
At first, Liman exaggerates the purity of the CIA, staging the agency as a sort of modern-day Round Table of super-smart spooks motivated by camaraderie and a communal commitment to tracking down truth. Just as unbelievable and overblown is the blink-of-an-eye reversal when every good guy goes totally bad, abandoning Plame to lonely martyrdom. Like the government it demonizes, "Fair Game" never lets complexity or character development get in the way of its predetermined plan of attack.
In that vein, the insertion of an Iraqi family's tragic fate -- resulting directly from Plame's banishment from the CIA -- comes off as just plain manipulative. Plame persuades a reluctant doctor to return to Iraq right before the war to gather information from her scientist brother, and Liman literally rubs our faces in the happy family reunion, the naïve trust of the brother and his colleagues. Later, post-"shock and awe," we're stuck in a car with the scientist and his little son, desperately wheeling left and right (cue jitterbugging camerawork) to escape a sudden firefight. There's no narrative logic here, no authentic emotions aroused by this overseas soap opera; it's just a way to kill some time by tapping into knee-jerk liberal guilt. In lieu of dramatic subtlety, bash Bush and his war.
(In an aside, we learn the CIA has leaked the identities of those Iraqi scientists -- potential assets for other countries eager to develop nuclear capabilities -- to Israel's Mossad, which then assassinates them one by one. The complexity of such stone-cold, international machinations make "Fair Game"'s simplistic villainy look tame.)
The movie's baddies appear courtesy of archival TV footage -- Bush, Cheney and Rice ginning up fears of nuclear attack by Iraq -- and cartoonish impersonations. We're reminded of how mesmerizing such insistent "sincerity" can be, giving rise to dark thoughts about how and when it's currently being practiced. Queasy hilarity is provided by David Andrews' effective turn as Scooter Libby. Dispatched to dissuade the CIA from its inconvenient opinion that Saddam possesses no WMD, Karl Rove's hatchet man demonstrates such blandly inquisitorial nastiness that one demoralized agent is driven to the john to upchuck. Too bad our once and future Mephistopheles, aka Turd Blossom, pretty much gets a pass, but even in Limon's phony patriotic fable, supernumeraries must take the fall.
In "Fair Game," divine wisdom is ultimately dispensed by Chuck Yeager ... which is to say, Sam Shepard, who played the true-blue American fly-guy in "The Right Stuff" -- a movie set in that long-ago time when a young, idealistic president dreamed of conquering space, rather than a second-rate dictator.
Ludicrously, in Shepard's one scene as Plame's dad, the camera swoops every which way to avoid showing his face, teasing us by withholding the identity of this magisterial figure. Finally revealed, Shepard's shot like a head from Mount Rushmore ... only to mouth platitudes. Look no further for evidence of "Fair Game"'s cluelessness when it comes to playing fair.