Why do Hollywood treatments of real injustice tend to fall victim to their own impassioned convictions?
Fair Game, the new film from Doug Liman, arrives with the promise of finally lifting the curtains around the Bush administration’s highly publicized — and highly illegal — 2003 identity leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame and her contacts but really, the movie is as cloaked and muddled as it paints post-9/11 American politics.
Liman, who as of late has specialized in high octane trips around the globe such as The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith — typically with a lot of firearms going off — gives us Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson.
The film opens with a handsomely dressed Plame in a foreign country — the exotic location amplified by the cunning use of African percussion amid the soundtrack — en route to a black tie event with a potential informant.
When the gloves come off and the sucker tries to bolt, Plame issues a single curt warning: “You have no idea what we can or cannot do.”
It’s an effective moment of establishment, one that will hopefully catch viewers off guard with the steely reserve of Plame, unyielding in her devotion to her job and its human demands.
What a shame then, that the rest of the picture skirts away at the speed of a drone to a narrative many of us are already quite familiar with.
We meet Wilson at a bar with friends — mostly conservative — bristling as their apathy of world affairs reveals itself in their half-drunken discourse.
For a moment, the picture latches onto the enticing question of how two government workers on opposite sides of the ethical plateau wind up married, but, unfortunately, Liman’s plans lie in the legislature of the story.
There’s a brief jaunt to Niger, where Wilson deduces that a shipment of cast iron tubes high on the White House’s list of reasons to invade Iraq are not the chemical weapons Washington thinks they are.
The report is printed, and the higher ups (in the form of Karl Rove) ignore it. Mr. Wilson angrily takes the administration to task in The New York Times and finally, that fateful order from Scooter Libby is approved, ousting Plame in an act of retribution for her husband’s published condemnation.
The anger that Liman seeks to uncork has already saturated much of the public consciousness — at least, those sectors politically unopposed to hearing it.
There is little to disagree with here, which makes for a self-satisfied editorial and an immensely underwhelming film. Nowhere does Fair Game take a moment to detach itself from the urgency of its story, instead plowing ahead toward the inevitable conclusion.
It’s a serious disservice to Watts and Penn, who imbue their characters with touching behavioral notes and, in certain moments, exude that unmistakable air of two people who have loved one another for a very long time.
The very brief scenes at home with their kids feel original, unstaged and authentic, while the first menacing phone call that Watts receives stinks of calculation. The call hastens the plot for those too burdened by emergency to deal with the pastoral glimpses of life before the leak.
Unfortunately, the film fails to reveal anything new, aside from regurgitating the facts of the story. This sort of ripped-from-the-headlines feature has been done before — and better.
Costa-Gavras treaded similar ground in Z, the 1969 thriller about a political assassination in Greece, and succeeded masterfully. Gavras rolls the cameras generously before and after the fatal bludgeoning of Yves Montand’s leftist deputy, taking in the sickening unease of the crowds in the streets and the very relatable motivations of those paid to beat the kids to a pulp.
Even Paul Greengrass’s recent Green Zone explored similar issues with its graphic depiction of life for Iraqis and Americans alike beyond the fences of the Imperial City. It had an agenda, but still gave viewers a new perspective.
Brushing over the international implications of the Plame leak, we are mostly told that the leak has ruined Plame’s life at home, but how can one be bothered to empathize with Plame when so little of that life is illustrated?
The arguments, as the overtly defensive Wilson and the more subordinate Plame debate the best course of action, are deflated by the lurking suspicion that perhaps at the end of this despairing journey, there is little to fight for.
When the real Plame is finally seen in archival footage, seated before the Supreme Court, the effect is bewildering.
Perhaps Liman’s picture is destined for a second life, as a mouthpiece on mass media’s trending effect of fictionalizing fact.
One can only hope, for as an outcry of partisan backstabbing, Fair Game is painfully quiet.