An attractive blonde woman talking to an Abu Dhabi zillionaire in Kuala Lumpur: Valerie Plame would attract attention wherever she was. Yet she managed to sustain a double life on the surface a software company executive and loving wife and mother; in reality a CIA officer (and loving wife and mother) until a July 2003 column by Robert Novak outed Plame. Nothing personal: exposing an undercover agent, and jeopardizing the lives of her overseas "assets" was just the Bush White House's way of punishing her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, for writing a New York Times op-ed piece refuting part of President Bush's rationale for invading Iraq. Plame's work had taken her to a dozen countries under a dozen pseudonyms. Now everyone, from her suburban neighbors to spy-ring chiefs around the world, knew who Valerie Plame was and what she did.
The blowback from the case had some piquant results: the resignation of Lewis "Scooter" Libby as Vice President Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff; the infusion of rhyming headlines in The New York Post ("'Scooter' Won't Play Plame Blame Game"); and one of the few criminal convictions in an Iraq affair that could have put many powerful men behind bars. It also elevated Plame and Wilson to the status of Golden Couple handsome, intelligent, poised and principled and suitable subjects for Hollywood hagiography. Doug Liman's Fair Game, which casts Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as Wilson, and which had its world premiere this morning at Cannes, is a clumsy step at reconciling complex political and diplomatic issues with an edgy story of middle-age marriage.
Liman is a practiced hand at the espionage game. After two smart social comedies (Swingers and Go), he directed The Bourne Identity, the first of the Matt Damon trilogy about superspy Jason Bourne, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, in which Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie played a husband-and-wife pair of rival secret agents. Granted that Plame's autobiography, as heavily edited by her old bosses, contained as many blacked-out paragraphs as there would have been in a Trotsky memoir published in Stalin's Soviet Union. (The title of her book, and the film, comes from a phone chat that MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews reportedly had with Wilson, in which Matthews quotes White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove as saying, "Wilson's wife is fair game.") But there are other sources, and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have studiously plundered them; the film comes off as a knowledgeable précis of the events. Still, for the Butterworths and Liman, infusing some urgency into the Plame-Wilson story should have been a slam dunk. Instead, this is a fitful, soggy docudrama with only a few redeeming frissons.
One is the tension between the gung-ho warriors under Cheney's command and the more nuanced folks at the CIA. When Libby (the steely David Andrews) focuses his daunting prosecutorial skills on the CIA analysts, demanding to know if they're 100% sure of their intelligence, they wilt; they have all the facts, but he has the balls. In this the collision of two cultures, two temperaments, the bullies in the White House trump the ditherers at Langley. It suggests exactly how the Bush Administration ruled other, supposedly independent branches of government: with zealotry and machismo.
Another acute touch is the increasingly frayed relationship of an activist wife in a glamorous job and a more sedentary husband who runs a consulting firm. The movie's Joe Wilson has the traditional "wife" role: staying home, minding the kids, wondering what dreadful secrets the spouse with the really important job is harboring. There's a charged exchange where Valerie asks her husband, "Do you think I'm lying to you?" and Joe replies, angrily, helplessly, "Could I tell if you were?" Joe's insistence on going public, fighting the Bush White House and, in the process, becoming a media star is portrayed as the submissive husband wanting his share of the limelight. As he finally confesses, "I did it for me."
In TV interviews, the real Joe Wilson seems a genial sort a professional, somewhat professorial charmer. Penn plays him the way he plays nearly every role: as a bundle of loose nerves, dangling ganglia, a series of angry attitudes aspiring to characterization. He gives us the furrowed brow, the peering through spectacles, the heavenward gaze from a head thrust back, the insufficiently suppressed rage. The part needed a more relaxed actor, maybe Jeff Bridges, to show the comfort level from which Wilson rose to make his moral stand. Then Watts, who's quite fine in the difficult task of impersonating a famous figure, wouldn't have to carry the film on her own.
Liman, who is cinematographer here as well as director, shoots the movie in approved shaky-cam style, making the screen image even more fidgety than Penn's performance. He might have shown more confidence in the material, less agita in the presentation. These flaws may consign Fair Game to the ash heap of movie histories about the U.S. Iraq adventure but it won't stop filmmakers from addressing the subject. There's another Iraq screed later today at Cannes: Ken Loach's Route Irish. Like George W. Bush to his enemies, we say, "Bring it on."