The Plame Affair is a story that’s brimming with drama. It features international intrigue, marital tension, espionage, and betrayal by our own government. Director Doug Liman believes that in Fair Game he can capture that drama as long as he doesn’t hold the camera steady. The pacing is uneven, the characters are poorly drawn, and the historical impact of the scandal barely reverberates. Rather than ignite shock and outrage in the audience at the shocking and outrageous retaliation by the Bush Administration against Joe Wilson, Fair Game is a tepid movie that wastes its talented lead actors and can never find the drama that surrounded its real-life events.
Valerie Plame (played by Naomi Watts) was a CIA operations officer who was investigating WMDs in the run-up to Iraq and later trying to get scientists out of the country (an operation that was ruined when her cover was blown). During the run-up to the war, the CIA brought in Plame’s husband and former ambassador Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn) to visit Niger under the suspicion that the country may be making yellow cake uranium as part of Iraq’s weapons program. Wilson reported back that he didn’t find any evidence of such weapons development. Of course, that didn’t stop President Bush from making that assertion in his State of the Union address. Wilson, who is depicted as a sanctimonious hothead, fired off an editorial to the New York Times. As retaliation and in an attempt to discredit Wilson, the White House leaked the story that Plame was a CIA agent.
Fair Game is a movie that has a lot to handle and it fumbles almost everything. For example, the film spends the first two acts putting the emphasis on the political intrigue surrounding the affair. But in the third act, the attention turns to the marital tension between Plame and Wilson, which is a problem since it’s hard to feel for a crumbling marriage when you didn’t see much of the marriage in happier times. It’s also frustrating as we’re led into a more politics/espionage-driven drama that’s left behind for what feels like a smaller story of domestic bliss ruined.
The various dramas are thrown together in one jumble as Watts and Penn always come off as intense and Liman’s cinematography is one-note: the jittery note. It’s a lazy way to attempt to inject energy into the proceedings in place of a stronger narrative, smart pacing, and giving the actors room to breathe.
Fair Game is a resounding disappointment. It has all the pieces of a smart, timely, easily-accessible political thriller that could hit at the heart of the disturbing crossroads of a media narrative running up against the truth and the resulting casualties—both literal and figurative—along the way. Instead, the film swings wildly at any hint of drama and ends up hitting nothing.