During the fall-out over the Iraq conflict there was a small story involving the White House exposing a CIA agent because her husband spoke out against the war. I ignored it because it didn’t seem too important. Actually it was very important illustrating how politics can manipulate intelligence work to disastrous effect. Fair Game is based on this incident and is an extremely well-made film that tells a valuable story with two brilliant performances from Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.
Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) is a CIA agent who is promoted to lead an investigation into WMDs in Iraq. When her husband, former US diplomat Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), is asked to investigate the possible illegal sale of uranium from Niger to Iraq, he discovers that such a sale would be impossible. Which runs contrary to the political line that the White House, and in particular, Dick Cheney’s office has espoused. Furthermore, Bush gives a speech effectively using false information. His investigation is ignored and so Joseph writes about it in the New York Times. When the media begin to ask awkward questions, Karl Rove launches an attack on Joseph via his wife Valerie, exposing her as a CIA agent and effectively changing her and Joseph’s life for the worse as they endure death threats, hatred and media attacks. Fair Game explores their response and how media and politics almost destroyed two people.
Split into three parts: spying, politics and family life, the initial sections of the film build up context well. We see that Valerie is an excellent spy and Joe is a successful businessman loyal to his country, their family life is strong despite being somewhat strained by the demands on her time her profession requires.
This set-up ensures that once the dirty politics begins to swamp their lives the film has an interesting field to explore, analysing what happens when a CIA agent’s activities are exposed to the public and the lives of her family and those she works with are endangered and her career ruined. To prevent itself from being totally one-sided the writer’s ensure film is smart enough to also question Joe’s stand against corrupt government and taking on the White House and it seems he enjoys public speaking an chastising Washington a lot even to the point that he risks losing his family.
Which is where we get to the performances.
Penn’s performance can be read either as passionate crusader or egotistical and head-strong, either way his grand-standing speeches are exciting to listen to. Despite the film showing he’s knowledgeable it was hard not to see some of his actions as selfish. Is he venting pent-up aggression at her profession?
In response, Naomi Watts plays the loving mother and dedicated agent role well veering away from melodrama and responding to Penn in an understated way, more a tough cookie, absolutely steely and dignified in the face of intense pressure from government and media and passionate husband.
Directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity and Jumper) this film offers less action and more contemplation. He favours sober analysis of serious politics and how it affects people. He uses medium close ups throughout most of the film.
It succinctly captures the zeitgeist of the era in terms of terrorism and the media and all that went wrong and can go wrong when intelligence work is politicised by people determined to go to war.
The film portrays interdepartmental and cross-governmental conflicts well and how Bush administration officials were cherry-picking raw data, leaking it and using it as fact. White House politicos Karl Rove and Scooter Libby make slimy villains indeed. It seems inevitable that they will break the law and leak the name of the dissenter’s wife in order to distract the media.
Within its hour and forty-seven minutes, you will begin to understand the issues surrounding political manipulation of intelligence and media collaboration. I think this is an important film and it’s hard not to see Pamela and Joe as heroes of the modern age, taking on government and media.