Fair Game Exposes Bush Lies Despite Weak Direction

Fair Game (2010)
Directed by Doug Liman
108 mins. PG-13
* * *

Need a reminder that things could always be worse? Check out Fair Game, the film that tells the real-life story of former CIA spy/analyst Valerie Plame and her husband, ex-diplomat Joe Wilson. It’s not a great film, but it is a hammer-to-the-face wakeup call that even if you think Barack Obama is a disappointment, he’s not actively evil like his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Is evil too harsh a word? I don’t think so. Plame, you may recall, was a CIA operative whose identity was outted by the Bush administration in 2003 as a way to exact revenge against her husband. What did Joe Wilson do that was so awful? When he found that a study he authored was doctored and being cited as justification for going to war against Iraq, Wilson wrote to the New York Times to tell the truth. In the lead up to the war, the Bush team told Americans that Saddam Hussein had purchased enriched uranium cake from Niger, which it intended to pack into aluminum tubes and make into nuclear bombs. Problem one: the CIA’s own intelligence said that the tubes could not be used for that purpose. Problem two: the CIA could not confirm that Saddam even had aluminum tubes. Problem three was a doozie: the CIA had sent Wilson to Niger with the express purpose of verifying the purchase of “yellow cake” uranium; he reported back that there was absolutely no truth to the rumor. Understand the magnitude of this. It means that the entire of Gulf War II is a lie. It means that every single U.S. soldier who has died in Iraq has sacrificed his or her life for a deliberate falsehood, as have tens of thousands of Iraqis. Does that qualify as evil?

If not, how about the fact that Dick Cheney forced the CIA to agree with the administration’s concocted reading of non-evidence? How about Karl Rove and Scooter Libby convincing President Bush to strike back at Wilson by exposing his wife’s identity? How about the decision to go forth with that plan even though it meant signing the death warrant of all of Plame’s on-the-ground Iraqi intelligence sources and scientists who had cooperated with her? And how about an organized campaign by the Bush team to smear Plame and Wilson, harass their family, and libel their character? How about creating a climate of fear so palpable that anyone who spoke out—remember the Dixie Chicks fiasco?—found their patriotism impugned? How about creating an environment so poisonous that the actor who plays Bush in this film isn’t even credited on imdb? (Too bad; he got the smirk, swagger, and arrogance down perfectly.)

Fair Game takes its name from Plame’s own memoir and is meant to be taken literally—as in anyone was fair game for the Bush team’s lies—and ironically—as in no sense of fair play whatsoever. It is a well-acted film with Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as Wilson, two veterans capable of taking Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s limp script and Doug Liman’s uninspired direction further than they ought to go. Watts is especially good at balancing the character of Plame as a woman who must simultaneously cordon off from her friends her real identity, play spy hardball in dangerous places, be a mother to two small children, and try to express the very emotions she had been taught to suppress in her relations with her husband. Penn gives his usual intense performance and, though I could have done without the clich├ęd schoolroom speech near the end, he does a decent job of expressing moral outrage and of showing what gave Wilson the sheer chutzpah to speak out at a time in which it cost a lot to do so.

It is a testament to Watts and Penn that this film works as well as it does. It’s a chilling story that’s nearly made pallid by weak direction. Put simply, Liman—best known for directing The Bourne Identity--doesn’t seem to be up to the challenge of presenting nonfiction material this potent. I kept wondering how much better this film would have been if directed by someone such as Sidney Lumet. Go see the film for the civics lesson, not the filmmaking. People have wondered why only Scooter Libby went to jail and why Bush wasn’t impeached. After seeing this film your position will shift and you’ll find yourself asking why he, Cheney, and Rove weren’t lined up against a wall and shot. Fair Game? I think not. How about War Criminals?--LV

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