The spy the Bush camp threw into the cold

Sean Penn, quiet and volatile as Joseph Wilson, and Naomi Watts, Oscar- worthy as Valerie Plame, in a real-life espionage/political/human drama.
Sean Penn, quiet and volatile as Joseph Wilson, and Naomi Watts, Oscar- worthy as Valerie Plame, in a real-life espionage/political/human drama.
Posted: November 05, 2010

At the heart of every espionage thriller - from the most sophisticated and deftly delivered to the tackiest and most generic - is the question of truth.

Paid to deceive and seduce, the secret agent works with fake identities and fabrications, insinuating himself, or herself, into the lives of strangers, foreign citizens, persons known, unknown, and possibly dangerous. In the thick of all the subterfuge, it's easy to lose track of who you really are, what you really do.

And it doesn't help when your boss back home - the country, the corporation, the agency that employs you - pulls the rug out from under you.

Which is exactly what happens to Naomi Watts' character in the taut, shattering Fair Game. That the character happens to be Valerie Plame, the real-life CIA operative exposed by higher-ups in the Bush administration - blowing her cover and endangering a network of contacts - only makes the story more powerful. And maddening.

Directed by Doug Liman (who launched a pretty decent spy franchise with The Bourne Identity), from a tight script by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, Fair Game focuses on the relationship between Plame and her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson (a quietly volatile Sean Penn). From the vantage of neighbors and friends, Plame and Wilson are just a couple of busy, successful Washingtonians. Two kids. Nice house. He consults. She works in energy analysis.

Behind Valerie and Joe's front door, however, it's another matter. "All we've been doing is leaving Post-Its for each other," gripes the husband, frustrated that Valerie's frequent, and mysterious, trips overseas have left him without a wife, and also without a clue. "If you went missing," he rages, "I could never tell anybody - because you weren't there."

But they've managed - until the months leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration was looking for proof of weapons of mass destruction. Plame returns from a trip with data that says there is no active nuclear program. Wilson, dispatched to Niger to investigate rumors of the sale of enriched uranium, reports that no such deal took place.

And then Operation Iraqi Freedom begins, based on "information" about aluminum tubes and enriched uranium that both Plame and Wilson had debunked. He's mad, and writes an op-ed piece in the New York Times decrying the war and the excuses used to launch it.

And somewhere in the Bush-Cheney-Rove hierarchy, the decision to expose Plame is made - an act of political vengeance. (Scooter Libby, chief of staff to the vice president, and also an assistant to the president on national security issues, was indicted by a federal grand jury. Character actor David Andrews plays Libby, and Adam LeFevre is an eerie look-alike Rove.)

It's an epic betrayal, and it throws Plame's and Wilson's lives - not to mention livelihoods - into turmoil.

Watts gives a deep and Oscar-worthy performance here, displaying the steely composure that made Plame a valued NOC (non-official cover operative). With fierceness in her eyes but nuance in her moves, the actress conveys the hurt, anger, and emotional confusion of a woman whose career has been torpedoed, and whose marriage and family are falling apart before her eyes.

While audiences may have had their fill of documentaries and narrative features dealing with the Iraq war, Fair Game works as far more than just another Bush-era disaster story. It's a real-life spy drama. It's human drama. It's political drama. And it's engrossing, all around.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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