Saturday 30 October 2021

Movie Review: Fair Game (2010)

A politics-and-espionage thriller, Fair Game combines tense spy operations with the sordid world of dirty politics run by ideologues 

In Washington DC, CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) is married to Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), a former ambassador to African countries and now a consultant. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, officials from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney pressure the CIA to find evidence of a non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. 

Plame helps to debunk claims that shipments of aluminium tubes to Iraq are being used to build uranium enrichment centrifuges, and the agency sends Wilson to Niger where he determines reports of a uranium yellowcake shipment to Iraq are fake. Plame also runs dangerous missions to connect with on-the-ground Iraqi scientists to get closer to the truth.

Cheney's adviser Scooter Libby (David Andrews) insists the CIA analysts are wrong and the administration proceeds to build a false case for an invasion based on willful evidence misinterpretation. Wilson is incensed his Niger findings were twisted into a justification for war, and goes public in an op-ed piece, exposing the administration's incompetence. The blowback from the White House threatens to destroy Valerie's life.

Based on real events, Fair Game is a fast-paced gallop through the dangerous dual worlds of spies and politicians, with real people caught in the middle. Doug Liman directs from a script by Jez and John Butterworth, and maintains focus on Valerie and John as a couple believing they are doing all the right things, sacrificing marital harmony to serve their country, only to be betrayed by their own government.

The pacing is brisk but always coherent. Liman covers many angles of the story in quick snippets, capturing the clash between Valerie's hectic career hopping between international hotspots and a domestic life buckling under the strain. The scenes from the White House are just as expeditious, bordering on abrupt, the film relying on historical character familiarity to avoid introducing all the buffoons. 

Liman and the Butterworths do not hide their sympathies, and rather than letting events speak for themselves, Fair Game on occasion drops into preachiness and speechifying. The CIA analysts are dedicated and thoughtful, the neo-conservatives are spectres of evil, and Wilson lectures to college students about the imperative of questioning government actions to safeguard a functioning democracy.

The final act slows down to focus on the personal impact of the crisis on Valerie and Joseph, their lives endangered, their careers and marriage in tatters. This chapter is more intimate and less freewheeling, allowing Naomi Watts and Sean Penn to shine in conveying anguish at a deeply personal level. The quality cast also includes Sam Shepard as Valerie's father, as well as Noah Emmerich and Bruce McGill.

Exposing a government capable of willfully endangering its own dedicated agents to serve crass politics, Fair Game is fair warning.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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