Less manic, goofy, and memorable than an Oliver Stone spin on the Wilson-Plame affair would likely have turned out, Fair Game balances its slow-boiling anger at the Bush administration’s malfeasance in selling the 2003 invasion of Iraq by keeping an eye on engaging the general audience with Scenes from a Georgetown Marriage. Director Doug Liman (still devoted to handheld-cam action even for kitchen convo and cocktail parties) and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth dramatize the internecine D.C. scandal mostly through the personal trials endured by covert C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and her husband, retired diplomat Joe Wilson (Sean Penn! Diplomat!), whose comfortable life among the Power Set was transformed when his op-ed pooh-poohing a rumored uranium purchase by Iraq brought the wrath of the White House on the couple.
The early scenes establishing the pair’s professional life are reasonably lucid, though elided and simplified in the Hollywood middlebrow manner; you can tell that whoever twitches and snarls the most in C.I.A. briefing rooms is the one full of shit, before his flimsy arguments are punctured by Plame’s cool responses. (Though what Wilson’s home-based “business” precisely entails remains murky, sounding vaguely like investment advice for developing nations.) But despite its heroine’s globetrotting investigations into weapons proliferation that take her from Kuala Lumpur to Cairo, Fair Game doesn’t enter crisis mode until the besieged Wilsons turn on each other, temporarily, under the stress of the national media maelstrom that blows through their household; the machinations of All the President’s Men never imperiled the heroes’ rearing of cute twin toddlers.
Watts’s Valerie is carefully weighted with the dutiful mien of a professional spy, even if her delivery of intelligence jargon never reaches the natural level, and a hokey dangerous-mission opening sequence misfires. She’s humanized, on the film’s terms, in feeding and ferrying her kids like any hands-on upper-class mother, and in smiling wearily at the foibles of Penn’s Joe, a glad-hander at meetings who snaps quickly at friends who spout xenophobia or naïveté after a few drinks. Liman tactically withholds any direct displays of Penn raging, to comic effect (cutting to Watts lamenting on a post-party drive, “You didn’t have to call him a racist pussy”), until the third act, when Wilson wails to Plame that they must fight the seemingly omnipotent feds after her cover has been blown in the Washington Post: “If I yell louder, does that make me right?” It’s a canny use of the actor’s image of indignant righteousness, closer to his real-life reputation than Harvey Milk’s militant mensch.
With Dick Cheney’s hissable chief of staff Scooter Libby (David Andrews) prowling around the West Wing to plot smears against the Wilsons, the movie turns into a morality play only complicated by questioning what it takes for granted. Did veteran spook Plame really believe her C.I.A. career would continue after her identity was leaked, instead of finding herself under guard in a bare room to write a list of her global contacts? Was Wilson equally infuriated, in serving as an African policy adviser under President Clinton, at his government’s callous indifference to Rwandan genocide? Or is this all about family?
Watts recedes in the second half of the film as Penn plays the hearth’s vengeful knight, striking back at the executive branch on cable-news shows and in magazine features, while she resists angrily in her panic over abusive phone calls and fear of more dangerous fallout. By the time Fair Game gets around to Joe justifying his crusade against the Bush thugs’ lies and illegalities in lecture halls with “It was a crime against all of you,” Liman’s film has saved nearly all of its climactic beats for the Wilsons’ separation and reconciliation, with Val seeing her combative spouse’s motivations more clearly with an assist from Special Guest Dad Sam Shepard. As for those who paid most dearly for the neocons’ trumped-up jihad, a subplot concerning an Iraqi American doctor (Liraz Charchi) and her scientist brother (Khaled Nabawy), who is stranded in war-torn Baghdad after Plame’s declassification, feels as digressive and perfunctory as foreign suffering has in countless other English-language geopolitical dramas. The politics of Fair Game are narrowed until they focus primarily on sparring inside-the-Beltway mates crying over their bathroom sinks.