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Fair Game | reviews, news & interviews

Fair Game

Fair Game

Iraq war conspiracy thriller isn't quite fact and not really fiction

Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), trying to have a ball

News junkies and connoisseurs of Iraq war conspiracies may be familiar with the true story of CIA agent Valerie Plame, which is earnestly converted to celluloid here by director Doug Liman. Part of Plame's work was infiltrating Saddam Hussein's weapons programme before the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was taken.

Her husband Joe Wilson, a career diplomat who had served a stint in Niger, was sent back there by the State Department to investigate rumours of the sale of enriched uranium to Iraq for use in nuclear weapons.

Wilson reported that he could find no evidence of any such transactions, but the White House ignored him and used the uranium yarn as part of its pretext for the Iraq invasion, with President George W Bush citing British sources for the story. The enraged Wilson wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times entitled "What I Didn't Find in Africa", which - as the movie would have it - goaded the administration into unleashing a cellar-full of dirty tricks. Plame was outed as a CIA operative, blowing apart several ongoing secret operations, allowing the Bush administration to claim the husband-and-wife team were in cahoots to discredit them, and putting their personal lives under extreme duress.

Naomi_Arab_smallDirector Liman shot the first of Matt Damon's Bourne movies, The Bourne Identity, as well as the ludicrous assassins "comedy" Mr & Mrs Smith. In stark contrast to the frenetic yet half-witted antics of messrs Pitt and Jolie in the latter, Liman's swerve into realpolitik with Fair Game radiates poker-faced solemnity as he traces his real-life couple through their ordeal by leak and smear.

The best calls Liman made were casting Naomi Watts (pictured right on undercover assignment) and Sean Penn as his leads. Both turn in powerful, sustained performances in pleasingly contrasting styles which make their relationship feel authentic without straining too hard. Watts skilfully conveys the tensions of being wife, mother and spy while maintaining a cover story to her friends of being a globetrotting venture capitalist, and renders Plame as a patriotic operative who's reluctant to turn on her employers publicly even after they hang her out to dry.

Sean__press_smallAs for Penn (pictured left, fending off the media), it must have taken him all of 15 seconds to accept a role seemingly created from a sample of his own DNA. His Joe Wilson is loud, pugnacious and righteously outspoken about what he sees as the criminal tendencies and warmongering of the Bush regime, and he won't listen to warnings that if he doesn't stop making inflammatory statements on TV talk shows the US government may just roll over and crush him. It's all in a day's work for one of Hollywood's shoutiest liberals.

Naomi_maps_smallThe real-life Mr and Mrs Plame-Wilson have each written a book about their experiences, and the screenplay by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth has naturally drawn on both. Liman has tried to amp up the sense of thriller-ish intrigue by showing some of Plame's undercover exploits in the Middle East, including a Mata Hari routine to lure intelligence targets into the CIA's net, but a central problem with the story is that much of it concerns secret briefings, backroom discussions and political manoeuvrings often revealed more by inference than by unambiguous direct action.

Since this is a Hollywood movie, much of the confusing and contradictory detail of the real events has been oversimplified, and some American critics lambasted the film-makers for omitting some of the most prominent true-life players in the story altogether. Specifically, they meant newspaper columnist Robert Novak, who first blew Plame's cover, and deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who later admitted leaking her name to Novak. Both Novak and Armitage were opposed to the Iraq invasion, which doesn't fit the unsubtle Good Guys vs Evil Neocons scheme of Liman's film. Assuming, that is, you can really buy Plame as an honest, compassionate CIA agent, seemingly unbesmirched by the black and cynical heart of the agency which employs her (Valerie Plame with Naomi Watts, pictured below).

Naomi__PlameThe movie also suffers from the sheer quantity of public debate about Iraq, which has aired all the issues from every conceivable angle over a period of years. Times have changed since All The President's Men, when audiences could still find it within themselves to be shocked by the criminal behaviour of their elected representatives. That movie was a crackling conspiracy thriller which powered inexorably towards the demise of a controversial President. In Fair Game, not even Sean Penn has been able to alter the course of the Dubya administration so that the maladroit malapropist ends up sewing mailbags in San Quentin. Meanwhile we see Mr and Mrs Plame-Wilson battling to save their marriage. It was tough going for them, but many thousands of Iraqis had it just that little bit tougher.

  • Fair Game is on nationwide release from Friday, 11 March

Watch the trailer for Fair Game

It must have taken Penn all of 15 seconds to accept a role seemingly created from a sample of his own DNA

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