Judge Clark Douglas once won a stuffed animal playing fair games.
An adventure so unbelievable, it can only be real.
"You did the right thing."
Facts of the Case
Since the mid-1980s, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts, Eastern Promises) has been an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. In the earliest days of the 21st Century, her work has included attempting to determine the purpose of aluminum tubes that had been purchased by Iraq. There is a good deal of debate within the CIA as to whether these tubes are intended for use as part of nuclear weapons. While Plame's intelligence suggests this is not the case, others aren't so convinced. In an alarming move, the White House announces that the CIA has found evidence of Iraq attempting to gain nuclear weapons, despite the fact that many within the organization do not believe this is the case.
Angered by this turn of events, Plame's husband and former US Ambassador to Niger Joe Wilson (Sean Penn, Mystic River) writes an op-ed for the New York Times arguing that there is no substantial evidence to suggest that Iraq has acquired the materials necessary to create weapons of mass destruction. The administration strikes back, not only going after Wilson's credibility but also leaking the fact that Plame is a CIA Agent. The revelation essentially kills Plame's career with the CIA and launches a now-famous media frenzy.
Ironically, the primary virtue of Doug Liman's Fair Game was perhaps impossible to achieve without bringing along the film's biggest liability. This is a film that determines to tell the real story of outed CIA Agent Valerie Plame and her husband Joe Wilson in as truthful and intelligent a manner as possible, which it does very well. Naturally, that also means that it's obligated to stick to the facts real life had to offer. This is where things get tricky: the actual events that occurred, dramatic though they may be at times, don't necessarily lend themselves to superb drama.
Oh, the big moments late in the film certainly pack quite a punch. When Plame is suddenly outed and her world starts to close in around her, we're hooked. If this were a fictional thriller, this moment undoubtedly would have come in the first act. However, because an immense deal of set-up is required to understand exactly why she was actually outed and because there isn't a whole lot of story to tell after the big event occurs, this moment takes place past the halfway point.
Perhaps it's starting to sound as if I didn't like the film, but that's not the case. I found the movie engaging and intriguing, but that's largely because I'm something of a political junkie and because I was enjoying the process of comparing the events as depicted in the film with the newspaper articles I had read and television reports I had seen on the subject. Still, Fair Game never quite manages to fuse its torrent of pertinent minutiae with a more basic sense of cinematic tension and excitement (see All the President's Men or Zodiac). As such, it falls into the category of, "decent movies that could have been exceptional documentaries."
And yet, the big moments are so shatteringly effective precisely because Liman is determined to give the audience a precise, detailed understanding of what is happening and why. As we watch a wide variety of characters weave their way through the story, the larger narrative becomes clear: the Bush administration was determined to go to war, and they were willing to accept even the slightest hint of suspicion as justification for doing so. The evidence found by Plame and Wilson contradicted this, so it was determined (by whom is still somewhat mysterious, but we know that "Scooter" Libby was heavily involved) that the couple needed to be discredited and swept aside.
Liman's film is a sharp attack on the Bush administration, but it is not an angry movie. The film remains level-headed and rooted in fact even when the drama reaches a boiling point, and it refuses to turn Wilson and Plame into saints despite the fact that it clearly agrees with them. Joe Wilson in particular is portrayed as a man whose pompous self-righteousness is constantly undercutting his genuine intelligence and political passion (there has rarely been a role Sean Penn was more naturally suited for). Plame is not depicted as a crusader of truth or as a left-wing hero, but simply as a woman attempting to do her job and stay out of the way. Without Wilson's more vocal involvement, it seems likely that Plame would still be toiling away in her old job. Watts' performance is impressively understated and naturalistic, but Penn's blustery fury is one of the film's most riveting elements.
The DVD transfer is nothing short of terrific; one of the best standard-def transfers I've seen lately. Detail is superb throughout; the creases in Penn's face and the wisps of Watts' hair are surprisingly clear. Depth is also remarkable, and shadow delineation is excellent. Blacks are deep and inky. Given all of this, I was surprised to see that the occasional subtitles (mostly present in the scenes where Plame and/or Wilson are overseas) are rather blurry. Audio is excellent, as composer John Powell turns in an appropriately agitated but never overbearing score which comes through quite strongly. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout. The only supplement is a commentary with the real-life Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson. This seems like a great idea, but the pair spends entirely too much time simply watching the film in silence. It's called a commentary track for a reason, guys. There are interesting tidbits of info scattered throughout, but you'd probably be better off just reading the two firsthand accounts the film is based on.
Fair Game isn't a great political thriller, but it's certainly a respectable one. An interest in politics and a general willingness to accept the idea that the Bush administration consciously accepted bad information as an excuse to go to war will go a long way towards increasing the chances that you'll dig it, though.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
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