Sean Penn, Naomi Watts Revive Valerie Plame in ‘Fair Game’

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Average: 4 (5 votes) Oscarman rating: 4.0/5.0
Rating: 4.0/5.0

CHICAGO – The key line in “Fair Game,” a distillation of Valerie Plame’s outing as a CIA operative in 2003, is intoned by character actor Bruce McGill, in a scene reminiscent of the “Mr. X” moment in the “JFK” movie. Pointing to the White House and the Bush Administration, he simply says, “there are the most powerful men in the history of the world.”

Naomi Watts gives an electric performance in the true story as Valerie Plame, a pawn in a political game where the truth is countered by the destruction of career and reputations. Sean Penn is her husband Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador who dares to take on the prickly Bush Administration by countering the president’s State of the Union Address and his infamous words, “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Plame is a life-long CIA operative, working undercover on various fact finding missions around the world. She is given the assignment to investigate nuclear scientists in Iraq, to ascertain whether Saddam Hussein is building the infamous weapons of mass destruction. She enlists an Iraqi expatriate and physician (Liraz Charhi) to go in country to gather intelligence from her brother, a former Iraqi nuke expert. In the midst of this investigation, her tight lid becomes undone.

Her husband Joe Wilson also occasionally works for the CIA. His fact finding mission was to explore the possibility that the African country of Niger was in fact selling “yellow cake” uranium to Saddam Hussein (yellow cake being a nuke ingredient). This fact would solidify the argument that Iraq is a nuclear threat and must be stopped by military force by the USA. What Joe Wilson finds is nothing.

The Bush Administration pushes forward with its quest. Vice President Dick Cheney is pushing the CIA harder to get the intel that will make the case. Words like “mushroom cloud” starts popping up on news outlets from administration officials, in an eerie coordinated effort. President Bush makes his State of the Union remarks. The United States invades Iraq.

Facing Off: Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as Joe Wilson in ‘Fair Game’
Facing Off: Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as Joe Wilson in ‘Fair Game’
Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon for © Warner Bros. Pictures

Four months after the invasion, Joseph Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” One week later conservative columnist Robert Novak, attributing a leak from the White House, outed Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame as an agent for the CIA. Her missions were suspended, and her family became targets.

This is a chilling film about the implications of power, in the mode of “All the President’s Men.” The bureaucracy of these types of operations are shown with alarming accuracy, as “analysts” and “agents” are pieces on a chess board, manipulated based on ego and power. Countering that air conditioned office mode is Plame and Wilson, who put their feet down in the midst of less-than-felicitous countries like Niger and Iraq, to put human voices into the cold intelligence gathering.

Naomi Watts does a strict balancing act as Plame. She never plays the victim, despite being a innocent target of political gotcha. She embodies the character of Plame (a key advisor on the film) as an intellectual agent with a varied life, justifying a career and family with notes on the fridge and a cold efficiency in the gathering and analysis of arcade spy stuff. The rest of the world doesn’t understand.

Sean Penn, whose politics have always been on his sleeve, plays Joe Wilson like a man possessed of the light of truth. Wilson is a complex soul in this scenario, obviously loving his wife but realizing the big picture. He was one man with one piece of key information against a political and military industrial machine that sought perpetual war and the profits therein. The odds are decidedly stacked against him, especially with a media that is willing to do the dirty work. Penn was also perfect because Wilson has a large, reactionary personality as portrayed, prone to lofty speeches and inappropriate remarks. He doesn’t play politics, he plays truth, which is how Penn reacts and acts in his real life.

The screenplay by John-Henry Butterworth and Jez Butterworth, plus the direction by Doug Liman, has a strong throwback to true-life political gamesmanship films like the aforementioned “All the President’s Men” and “JFK.” It shows not the main players, but the government bureaucrat apparatus around them, that is constantly and organically moving through the host of authoritarianism. It’s all about the justifications, and there are enough parasites in the power host organism to get the disease flowing.

Real vs. Reel: Valerie Plame and Naomi Watts on the Set of ‘Fair Game’
Real vs. Reel: Valerie Plame and Naomi Watts on the Set of ‘Fair Game’
Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon for © Warner Bros. Pictures

If the film has one weakness, it is the preachiness that is represented through Joseph Wilson. He is saddled on more than a couple occasions with some grand speeches, and perhaps he did give them. But the facts as laid out in the film were enough, and the inclusion of the remarks, especially filtered through the histrionics of Penn’s direct acting style, gave the film a leftist purgatory sheen.

To harken back to Oliver Stone’s “W.” from 2008, it gets plain sad to see a rehashing of the Bush Administration’s paranoid revenge upon those who dare cross their version of events. With George W. Bush now on tour with his new book, let the revisionism begin.

”Fair Game” opens for a limited release in Chicago on November 5th. Check local listings for show times and locations. Featuring Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Ty Burrell, Noah Emmerichm, Liraz Charhi and Bruce McGill,. Screenplay by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, directed by Doug Liman. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2010 Patrick McDonald,

The Oracle's picture

Plame outing and Niger forgeries

Great review. I’ll definitely be seeing this film.

But people forget that the outing of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson in 2003 began a couple of years earlier when some forged Niger documents were given to the CIA station chief in Rome, Italy, forged documents that purportedly showed Saddam Hussein trying to get his hands on even more low-grade yellow-cake uranium than he already had.

The CIA station chief forwarded this politically-manufactured claim to CIA headquarters at Langley. The CIA (probably in a PDF) briefed the president and vice-president. Dick Cheney then asked a CIA agent if this “information” was true, setting off all that followed. CIA officials decided to investigate. CIA officials knew that Plame’s husband, former U.S. ambassador Joe Wilson, had previously been sent on similar fact-finding missions for the CIA. He knew people over in Niger and at the French-controlled Niger uranium mines. He reported back to Washington that there was no evidence to support the claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to get more yellow-cake uranium. A U.S. general and the CIA station chief in Niger reported the same thing to Washington.

A couple of weeks before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by Bush and while U.N. WMD inspectors were still on the ground in Iraq searching for any WMD, U.N. officials were finally given a hard copy of the Niger documents. Within minutes, they determined that the Niger documents were forgeries, that someone had been trying several years earlier to make the case that Saddam Hussein had active, current nuclear aspirations in violation of U.N. sanctions. Now, who might have been trying to do that, I wonder?

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