Sean Penn, Naomi Watts
Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth (Screenplay); Valerie Plame, Joseph Wilson (books)
It's easy to understand why Sean Penn was attracted to Fair Game, a film based upon the real life story of CIA officer Valerie Plame's outing as an undercover agent by her own government in what was essentially an act of revenge after her husband, Joseph Wilson, wrote a scathing editorial critical of the Bush administration's handling of confidential materials successfully justifying a preemptive strike against Iraq.
This is prime Penn material, yet the film itself is a surprising disappointment despite Penn's usual fine performance as Wilson, a man who was driven to do what he felt was right as America attacked a nation based upon what Wilson would claim to be outright deception of the American public and much of the world.
It's weird, really.
Seldom has a film had so much go right for it yet still manage to feel so wrong. Fair Game isn't disastrous really, just remarkably ineffective in its dramatic impact and surprising devoid of anything that lasts longer than the closing credits.
The lasting power of this story, while not well brought to life in this film, is rather amazing. While American attentions have detoured out of Iraq and into Afghanistan, there's little denying the devastation that one feels when considering the case of Valerie Plame, a woman whose entire career was destroyed when her cover was blown Plame (Naomi Watts) and Wilson (Penn) are very different in personalities, Plame being a recently promoted CIA operative and a master of discretion while Wilson, at least as portrayed by Penn based upon Wilson's own writings, is a bit more of an impulsive and self-righteous man who seems not hesitant at all to speak his mind without thinking of the potential cost. While director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) portrays their differences, he also takes care to note that they were a happy couple and loving parents, as well.
As Fair Game is building up to Wilson's editorial and the betrayal, according to the film, of Plame by White House Chief of Staff Scooter Libby (David Andrews), Karl Rove (Adam Lefevre) and correspondent Robert Novak, the suspense and drama are taut and exciting with both Watts and Penn being at the top of their games. Yet, once the betrayal has occurred and the film focuses on the unraveling of Plame's career, the stress on the Plame/Wilson marriage and all that follows, Fair Game becomes decidedly less interesting and involving. A manufactured sub-plot involving an Iraqi nuclear scientist seems wasteful, and ultimately the film downward spirals in terms of both drama and lasting impact.
No doubt intended as Oscar bait given the film's early Winter release and headliners, Fair Game ultimately loses its spark and despite fine performances from both Naomi Watts and Sean Penn the film's closing righteous outrage feels manufactured bordering on condescending and dreadfully pretentious.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic