Who needs Doc Brown and his DeLorean time machine when Hollywood is all too eager to take us back to the Bush-bashing days of yore?
Fair Game, the ripped-from-the-manufactured-headlines film version of the Valerie Plame outing—marks the industry’s latest attempt to turn the public against President George W. Bush.
Too bad the 43rd president is currently kicking back in Texas, the era of blaming him for everything from Global Warming to the bad economy clearly over.
That leaves us with an intermittently engaging spy drama with all the political subtlety of a “Worst Person of the World” rant.
Naomi Watts plays our girl Valerie, a superspy who spends her days tripping up would-be terrorists and saving nuclear scientists from certain doom. At one point she even loses a fellow CIA agent within a government building, much like Emmitt Smith avoiding a tackle.
Valerie’s work keeps her busy, but her loyal husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) is there to kiss her after a long day of spy games and to watch after their props—or rather their two children.
Political thrillers as obtuse as Fair Game insert kiddies into the narrative for effect, like creaking stairwells in a haunted house movie.
Things go south for the couple when Joe is recruited by the government—at his wife’s suggestion—to investigate claims that Iraq reached out to Niger to buy yellow cake uranium. The diplomat turned weapons expert discovers the charge is spurious.
The White House goes into evil overdrive, as the all-powerful Scooter Libby (David Andrews) makes it his mission to out Plame‘s CIA cover to get back at the couple.
Only the film doesn’t actually say so—it just suggests it by turning Libby into a Machiavellian monster and casting an actor (Adam LeFevre) even heavier than Karl Rove to play Bush‘s wicked brain.
The fact that Richard Armitage, an insider who was highly skeptical of the Iraq War, did the leaking doesn’t come up until the final seconds of the film. Literally.
Let’s let cnn.com explain why this matters:
“The revelation that Armitage was the source of [Robert] Novak’s column is somewhat anticlimactic for Bush administration critics who had used the story as a weapon in Washington’s partisan battles.”
Why bother with the truth when a film can employ selective editing and other narrative trickery?
The Plame-Wilson family is turned upside down and then shaken like an Etch-a-Sketch. It’s here where the film temporarily roars to life, showing the impact that Valerie’s outing had on their extended family. But the film would rather bash Bush and cast Valerie and Joe as modern-day heroes than explore dramatically fruitful detours.
“They’re killing us on Fox and the blogs,” Wilson cries, eager to go on the offensive. And when they’re offered a chance to tell all in Vanity Fair, Valerie acts as if she’d rather jump off a cliff than do something so tacky. The fact that the couple did just that, including a glamorous cover shot that quickly became iconic, isn’t shown here.
Some things don’t fit the narrative.
Dates flash across the screen throughout Fair Game to lend the film an air of authenticity, but anyone who escaped the mainstream media bubble during the mid-2000s knows more than what’s shown here.
The film also serves up the oh, so stale biopic trick of having the main characters react to breaking news flashes on the nearest TV.
A few sharp moments emerge early in the film, hinting that Fair Game could defy expectations. Valerie awakens from a nightmare one night, and when Joe comforts her he finds bruises on her arms. It‘s a touching way to show the danger of her day job and the bond between husband and wife.
The inconsistent script also flashes some wit in those opening sequences, like when Joe Wilson first considers taking a government-sponsored trip to Niger.
“I’m not feeling very 007-ish,” he says dryly.
Several laugh-out-loud sequences follow, revealing the film’s real intentions. Consider an awkward scene in which a complete stranger harasses Joe Wilson in public. Naturally, Wilson gets in the last word with his full-throttled retort.
Penn must have seen the “display righteous anger” cue in the script at least a dozen times.
Casting the Oscar-winner as Joe Wilson proves near-disastrous. The actor’s personal appearances can be stuffy and self-righteous, especially when he talks politics. So his presence here in a liberal film playing a liberal icon is simply too distracting.
Penn is such a good actor that even hardcore conservatives can applaud most of his screen work. Not here, though.
Watts couldn’t turn in a weak performance on a dare, but she’s laden with a deified character whose only real flaw is that she’s too good at her job.
Fair Game never delves into the Wilson-Plame motives, their liberal alliances or the fact that the 9/11 Commission and the left-leaning Washington Post discredited some of Wilson’s claims. Those inconvenient truths might have led to a better, more honest account of a story that most citizens found about as compelling as a Matlock rerun.