Fair Game is not the story of former CIA operative Valerie Plame and her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, though you could be forgiven for thinking it was. In fact, its the story of the sixteen most destructive words in recent American history. In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush said
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
It was the basis of that year’s invasion of Iraq, and it was a lie. The American intelligence community knew it was a lie. Joe Wilson knew it was a lie, and he found that he could not in good conscience let it go unchallenged. Fair Game is the story of those words, what led up to them, and what came after, as seen through the lens of Wilson and his family.
When the film opens in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) is a covert operations officer for the CIA, specializing in counterproliferation. She is married to Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), who held a number of foreign service roles in the Clinton administration, particularly concerning African affairs.
When rumors of an enormous purchase of lightly-refined “yellowcake” uranium by the government of Iraq circulate, Plame writes a memo recommending her husband investigate, on the basis of his network of political contacts in Niger. He finds that the purchase is wildly improbable at best, and is shocked when Bush states it as fact and bases the ace for war largely on those cherry-picked rumors.
The writing is never better than when it nails the tone of the sort of semi-informed dinner-party conversations that actually took place in 2002 and 2003. The film uses these to deftly characterize the difference in Wilson’s and Plame’s styles: as Wilson and Plame watch their friends argue, they both secretly know more than they can let on. Plame sits silently, not speaking out unless she absolutely has to, but when Wilson hears a line of bullshit he feels driven to call it out and push back.
And the same dynamic is writ large on the national stage. Where Plame would turn inward and protect her family and those lives which now spend on her operations, Wilson is outraged by the sixteen words, and fires off an opinion piece to the New York Times. Not liking the be called out the administration — in the person of Lewis “Scooter” Libby (David Andrews) — leaks Plame’s identity to Robert Novak, who exposes her in the press.
From here, the movie examines the fallout of this coverup, and the damage it wreaks on Wilson, Plame, and their family, along with the families Plame had promised to protect. They are targeted publicly and personally, in an attempt to shift focus from those sixteen words to a convenient scapegoat. Being painted as traitors and communists, Wilson pushes to fight back, while Plame desperately tries to circle the wagons and protect her family. To be sure, much higher prices have been paid, but few stories come with such details, and so clearly show the lengths to which the White House was willing to go to hide its lies.
As a piece of history, Fair Game tells its story very clearly and cleanly, and with a minimum of fuss. It isn’t the most original piece of filmmaking in the world, and there’s nothing in the acting or the directing or the technical work that really leaps out as being particularly worth notice. But it can also be argued that it doesn’t let these things get in the way. In particular, Penn could have overwhelmed the whole project with a character study of Wilson, but instead he wisely lets the unfolding events take center stage. On balance it’s not the most gripping film of the year, but it may be one of the most important ones.
Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: it’s debatable whether any of the female characters other than Plame are fleshed-out enough to really qualify, but they do talk about things besides men. I’ll call it a narrow fail.