"Fair Game" takes place just a few years ago but it feels like a throwback to the political thrillers of the 1970s: globe-trotting and intelligent, serious and substantial, deliberately paced yet filled with mounting suspense.
It also boasts excellent performances from Naomi Watts and Sean Penn (no surprise there) as exposed CIA officer Valerie Plame and her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson — all of which makes it so frustrating when "Fair Game" implodes at the end in a heap of righteous indignation.
What happened to Plame and Wilson should make us angry and mistrustful. It should spur us into action, or at least inspire us to become more informed about what our political leaders are doing. But that much is evident from the first moments of director Doug Liman's film, based on a script by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, which itself is based on Plame and Wilson's memoirs. The film makes its case clearly and efficiently: These people were betrayed by the very government they served. It doesn't need to repeat its points with heavy-handed preaching at the end.
Still, until then, "Fair Game" moves well and keeps us riveted, even as it encompasses a great deal of complex material — no surprise again, coming from the director of "The Bourne Identity."
Watts is steely and cool as Plame, who traveled the world, assumed various identities and cultivated dangerous sources as a covert officer in the CIA's counter-proliferation department. When she's sent to Iraq in late 2001 to look for evidence of an active nuclear weapons program, she finds there is none.
Around the same time, the State Department sends her husband to the west African nation of Niger, where he was once the U.S. ambassador, to determine whether a sale of enriched uranium to Iraq had taken place. He finds there was no such deal — but that doesn't fit with the Bush administration's game plan heading into war there. Wilson's intel is ignored — Bush actually states the exact opposite of Wilson's findings in his State of the Union address — and as we all know too well by now, the United States declares war on Iraq anyway.
Wilson, though, won't be silenced — in temperament, he's Plame's verbal, passionate opposite — and writes an op-ed piece for The New York Times. Soon afterward, Plame's cover is leaked to the media and her contacts are compromised. "Fair Game" reinforces the assertion that this is no coincidence, and that the exposure of Plame's cover was a retaliatory act from the highest levels at the White House. (Indeed, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, then Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, was convicted of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI in the Plame investigation. President George W. Bush commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence.)
You don't have to be well-versed in the case to find yourself sucked into "Fair Game" — although if you are, you'll probably get a kick out of the depictions of Libby and Bush adviser Karl Rove. Noah Emmerich and Bruce McGill bring strength to their supporting roles as Plame's colleagues who are unsure about how to deal with the leak, and with her.
While it's convincing as a political thriller, "Fair Game" is, in some ways, actually more intriguing as an examination of a marriage under pressure, the kind none of us could possibly imagine. Watts and Penn know each other's rhythms, working opposite each other for the third time following "21 Grams" and "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," and they make us feel as if we're truly watching the intimate, often uncomfortable exchanges between a husband and wife, parents of twins struggling to maintain some sense of normalcy during the most extraordinary circumstances.
They're so good together, they actually make you wish "Fair Game" had dug a little deeper into their relationship. It's the rare movie that's not quite long enough.