Valerie Plame is the spy who was sent out to the cold, a CIA operative whose neighbors never guessed that the nice lady next door might be killing people. Fair Game is the true story of how Plame's job got in the way of a White House bent on war in Iraq and needing a scapegoat. Oh, and nearly ruined her marriage. • Fair Game focuses as much on kitchen table spats as espionage, with Cassavetes-style close-ups and testy confrontations. Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as her crusading husband, Joseph Wilson, are as intense as actors come; this couple could be falling apart in Georgia rather than Georgetown and they would be compelling. Acting isn't an issue with Doug Liman's film.
The problem lies with a screenplay based on separate books by Plame and Wilson, two contrasting personalities as Watts and Penn play them. Fair Game gets its suburban drama from hers and its political indignation from his. Liman aims to serve both perspectives while laying out the complexities of the scandal that outed Plame. That's a lot of muck to rake in less than two hours.
The short version: Wilson is a former ambassador to Niger sent there to determine if uranium was sold to Iraq, which would be proof of WMDs to justify the war. Wilson determined that no such sale occurred or was even possible. The White House ignored his findings, Wilson wrote an expose for the New York Times and, in retaliation, Plame's name was leaked to the media, ending her career and possibly endangering her family.
Liman handles the spy stuff with Bourne-again flair, especially the opener when Valerie proves her mettle during an assignment to secure a snitch. The parallel story of an Iraqi brother and sister whose fates depend on Valerie keeping her job is distracting but effective. Liman works as his own cameraman, with hand-held urgency and a slightly washed-out palette to lend a documentary feel. Those visual touches are less useful during the domestic issues at hand.
Fair Game feels like two very good movies mashed together to create merely a good one. As a study of a threatened marriage, it works largely because Penn obviously enjoys playing someone as liberally opinionated and prickly as himself. Joseph is a blowhard with facts backing up his bluster, aimed at dinner friends as easily as all the president's men. Valerie is accustomed to disguising her feelings, more coolly self-righteous, making a dynamic combination.
When attention turns to the WMD cover-up, Valerie fades into background fretting and Fair Game becomes Penn's bully pulpit, culminating in a hectoring lecture to rapt college students on citizen rights. It's a rouser, firmly in Penn's dramatic and philosophical wheelhouse. The speech answers each question raised in Fair Game about honesty and transparency in government but neglects one more: What do we feed the kids for dinner?
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.