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Movie Review

Fair Game

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language.

Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Biography Action Thriller Drama
1 hr. 44 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
October 2, 2010 (festival)
November 5, 2010 (limited—35 theaters)
November 12, 2010 (wide)
DVD: March 29, 2011
Copyright, Summit Entertainment click photos to ENLARGE Copyright, Summit Entertainment Copyright, Summit Entertainment Copyright, Summit Entertainment Copyright, Summit Entertainment Copyright, Summit Entertainment Copyright, Summit Entertainment Copyright, Summit Entertainment Copyright, Summit Entertainment Copyright, Summit Entertainment
Relevant Issues
Copyright, Summit Entertainment

spies in the Bible



IRAQ—What is the significance of Iraq in the Bible? Answer

War in the Bible

What is the Biblical perspective on war? Answer


DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE—Under what conditions may Christians divorce and remarry? Answer

divorce in the Bible

What does it mean to be “the husband of one wife”? Answer

Featuring: Naomi Watts (Valerie Plame), Sean Penn (Joseph Wilson), Ty Burrell (Fred), Sam Shepard (Sam Plame), more »
Director: Doug Liman—“The Bourne Identity,” “Jumper”
Producer: Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ, River Road Entertainment, Participant Media, Zucker Productions (as Zucker Pictures), Weed Road Pictures, Hypnotic, Fair Game Productions, Mohamed Khalaf Al-Mazrouei, more »
Distributor: Summit Entertainment

“Inspired by true events”

The Joe Wilson-Valerie Plame affair was as much a circus as it was a scandal. Doug Liman’s movie, “Fair Game,” based on Plame’s book of the same name, could have been a fun romp or even a thrill ride, the kind of spy movie Hollywood used to make (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Day of the Jackal”) before it lost its sense of sport and humor when it came to portraying spies, especially American ones.

The film industry, also, lost its sense of right and wrong, assigning a moral equivalence to all spies, whether home grown or foreign, as if there was no difference between what the CIA was doing and what the KGB was up to. The German film, “The Lives of Others” gives us much better insight into how spy agencies work and how those employed by totalitarian states are capable of much more danger, and evil, than our own CIA. Liman’s main character is actually a CIA agent, but Liman goes easy on the CIA. His target is a bigger one; he’s got his sights set on The White House, specifically the Bush administration.

Liman’s film has a lot of preachy moments. That would be fine; a lot of today’s spy movies do. The recent disaster, “The Informant” is the latest of many that do. Unfortunately, none of those moments are interesting or the least bit thrilling. I’ve attended sociology classes that were more stimulating.

Despite some holes in Plame’s own account, and some craters in her husband, Joe Wilson’s, Liman takes both of them at their word and patches together a tale with more confabulation than logic. Tall tales sometimes make a suspense yarn sizzle, but these fat facts defy even cursory reason. They hold up about as well as sand castles in a desert storm.

The film opens with a confusing and dubious sting operation in which Plame traps a Kuala Lampur businessman who is involved in nuclear arms trading. I don’t know what the point of that intro was except to hammer home the fact that Plame was indeed a CIA operative who worked undercover to uncover the bad guys. Okay, I get that. What I don’t get is why her husband lists her BY NAME in his Who’s Who profile. He also lists her employer, the CIA. The film leaves out this tid bit. In fact, the film leaves out almost all of the data that would contradict the Wilsons' story.

The Plame scandal is not all that old; it happened about five years ago, and is therefore not so easy for those of us who followed the story to forget the facts. That doesn’t seem to bother the filmmakers. They plow ahead with their own version of events, and conveniently leave out any contrary evidence. Granted, it’s debatable whether a story needs to stick just to the facts all the time, but when real people are set up as real villains some delicacy or some broader point of view would seem to be in order. That is certainly not the case in “Fair Game,” a recap of a series of bouts that is anything but fair.

The film follows some basic facts before it starts postulating and going wildly out of control. In 2003, the Bush administration obtained some intelligence that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy yellow cake uranium from the African country of Niger. The working theory was that Saddam wanted to use that uranium to build nuclear weapons.

The movie fails to mention that such intelligence was investigated and verified by the British secret service before the U.S. sent a delegation to Niger to see if the claims were true. Joe Wilson, former assistant ambassador (an assistant ambassador being the guy who makes sure there are enough hangers in the embassy coat closets and enough guest towels in the wash rooms), and for a short time, acting ambassador in Iraq, was a member of that fact finding mission.

In the movie, Plame and Wilson plot to get inside the loop, as part of the delegation, so they can find out what’s really going on with the Niger mission. They suspect wrongdoing, but not by Iraq or by Niger. No, they think their own country is up to no good, and it’s up to them, Joe and Valerie, to expose their own country’s abuse of power. They take it upon themselves to stop the Bush administration from pursuing a war with Iraq because they know there is no good reason for pursuing that war.

How do they know that? Well, they just do. There are only bad reasons for pursuing such a war, and we are given the usual ones: revenge, imperialism, nation building, and, of course, oil. One might wonder if it is indeed the role of a CIA agent to live in a kind of parallel universe in which she not only investigates enemies of her government but can find the time to snoop inside her own government, as well.

Wilson accompanied the delegation to Africa, and, upon returning, he wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times in which he claimed that a possible sale of uranium was never discussed between Iraq and Niger; indeed, the supposed transaction was a hoax on the part of the Bush administration, a dastardly hoax that the administration perpetrated for its own nefarious purposes. Whoa, that’s quite a charge, Joe! The movie takes that charge at face value, but if one checks The U.S. Senate’s September 11th Report, the story becomes a bit more nuanced.

Wilson’s first report, one he submitted before he wrote the Times piece, seemed to back up British intelligence that indeed there was an Iraq-Niger deal. His article contradicted the testimony he gave to the Senate panel, and he was subsequently chastised by that panel for giving conflicting statements. When John Kerry sought the Presidency in 2004, Wilson served as an advisor to Kerry’s campaign, but after Wilson gave his testimony to the Senate panel, the Kerry campaign immediately dropped him. Again, no mention is made of this in the film.

Amidst all this confusing reportage of the Niger visit, it seems not just sensible but unavoidable to ask how on earth did this guy wind up as a member of a delegation sent to Africa by the Bush administration. When a reporter—and how is it possible that the rest of the Washington press corps stayed asleep for this one?—does do some real investigating, he finds out that Wilson was made a member of the delegation after his wife recommended him. Doesn’t it seem logical to then ask who the wife is?

Getting the answer to that question, and reporting that answer is what led to the scandal. Veteran Washington reporter, Robert Novak, obtained that information from assistant Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, and printed that information in The Washington Post. The White House had nothing to do with naming Valerie Plame as Joe Wilson’s wife or with outing her as a CIA agent. Joe Wilson had already done that. No one exposed Plame as an undercover agent for the CIA, because she did not meet the criteria for being an undercover agent. Patrick Fitzgerald, the independent attorney assigned to investigate the scandal, charged no one with a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, something that the Wilson character keeps harping about in the film, even though a close study of the case reveals that the act did not apply to Plame.

We now know that it was not Karl Rove or Dick Cheney or Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby (the only person convicted in the case, for perjury, and not for violation of the Identities Protection Act) who spilt the beans. The leak about Plame came from the State Department, and not from The White House.

“Fair Game” nonetheless takes the position that The White House used a scorched earth campaign to go after Plame and her husband for daring to speak truth to power; i.e., exposing the Bush administration lie that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Wilson didn’t have much of a career left, but Plame lost her “cover” and lost her job. Her marriage and her family were now at risk. So were the people she worked with, and so was her family. Or so the film would have us believe.

Plame’s behavior after the scandal broke, however, might make one think otherwise. She became a fixture on the D.C. party circuit, got a nice advance for a very public book about her ordeal, and did several photo spreads for Vanity Fair magazine. In one picture, she wore only pajamas; in another, she sat behind the wheel of a convertible and was decked out in fashionable sunglasses and a scarf trailing Isadora Duncan style behind her. This is someone who shies from exposure? The film is particularly laughable during a sequence in which the Vanity Fair offer is made and Plame doesn’t just shun it, but claims to be offended by it. The film doesn’t tell us, but she obviously had a change of heart.

The film is worse than a bore; it’s an aggravating bore. It does an injustice to the public by presenting such a one-sided view of history. I won’t make a moral judgment on the filmmakers' intentions, although that’s exactly what they did in their portrayal of people they have a disagreement with, people that have lives and reputations that don’t deserve the reckless treatment they are given here.

In these times, we see a divisiveness in our political system that can be disheartening. When our politicians can’t come to amicable agreements, the public can exert some influence and perhaps tame those disagreements. Art, and especially the cinema, can bring opposing forces together with some insight, some warmth and some humor. In recent campaigns, we saw people scorned and mocked for their political views, and for their religious beliefs, as well. The media were only too happy to jump on that bandwagon by feeding us with stories about witches, fundamentalists and extremists. It was hard to find a story that revealed a side other than the one the media portrayed. “Fair Game” might have given us a better understanding of the political characteristics that divide us and the ones that, at times, bring us together. Instead, it flamed the fires of discontent; it cried havoc, and released the dogs of war. It did the public, and the country, no service.

Naomi Watts gives a vapid performance as Valerie Plame. Watts does forlorn, sad, distraught waifs very well, but she is lost in this tale of what Liman puts over as an example of espionage heroism. Watts seems to be looking beyond the camera and asking the director to “give me something else,” understandable since there’s not a whole lot for her to work with here. Sean Penn breathes fire as Joe Wilson. The professorial combed back hair and the granny glasses perched on the nose do little to tame his out of control performance. Penn, a profound Bush hater (“Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice—they should all be in jail”; no hyperbole there, Sean) is as intent on finding fault with his enemies as his foes are in seeking hidden weapons and bombs.

If it is a bomb they seek, I submit “Fair Game” as exhibit A.

Violence: Moderate / Profanity: Heavy—“G-d” (8), “f” words (2), “s” words (10), slang term for female genitals, and various other vulgarities / Sex/Nudity: Moderate

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Comments below:
Positive—This was a great film. The reviewer is, unfortunately, caught up in dangerous moral relativism when he discusses Hollywood assigning moral equivalence to all spies—as Christians, does that mean we should tolerate lower morals from the CIA, as long as it’s in the pursuit of “good”? No! Living in a free society, we should demand that our government act in a Christian manner. The manner in which the U.S. Government handled the Iraq war and Valerie Plame was awful and embarrassing. The movie does a superb job of portraying the heavy burdens of political expediency.

Besides doing an excellent job of discussing the politics of the situation, the film places marriage on a pedestal; at one point, Plame and her husband consider divorcing. Yet, Plame’s father tells her that couples always go through hard times, and that relationships require hard work. Plame and her husband subsequently remain together. I enjoyed “Fair Game,” and would highly recommend it.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Cornelius Christian, age 23 (Canada)
Positive—I found this film to be very intriguing, especially since it’s based off a true story. I had never even heard of this woman before. It was a good example of a marriage sticking together, even through tough times. There are couple f-words and a few s-words, but I would recommend it to mature viewers.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Melanie Meyer, age 18 (USA)
Positive—Let me begin with the moral rating, which I scored as “Excellent!” for “Fair Game.” The portrayal of the couple and how they juggle their careers with their children struck me as admirable and ideal. No matter what demands they encountered, no matter what circumstances in their professional roles that resulted in crisis moments, there seemed to be no complaint or backlash on the “burden” of rearing their children. In fact, it seemed fantastic how the couple managed a “normal” family life complete with breakfast, unplanned daycare, trips to the playground, etc.

The pressures resulting from the events of the movie at times hit home, particularly for parents, such as the real threats against a family’s physical safety and security, economic threats, and the issues of inner motivations that the couple explored and with which they were at odds with one another, whether one’s drive was for themselves (under the guise of professional and professional integrity) or for what really and ultimately mattered (children’s welfare, caring for the fate of intelligence assets).

More than anything, I valued the overall theme in the movie, the tenacious strive for truth and unswerving insistence of it in the face of hostility ranging from peers and public opinion and a hostile, uninformed and biased press, to the most extreme embodiment of opposition, the White House itself.

Whatever disagreements there may be on the facts of the real life events, no matter how all of that is spun and re-spun, the truth remains that someone close to the very top of the White House was convicted and sentenced for crimes related to this incident, which amounts to something more than just a smoking gun. Suspicion is all the more aggravated by the fact that George W. Bush commuted the sentence, but withheld a full pardon at the reported dismay and disappointment of Dick Cheney.

As a Christian, American and registered Republican, I am disillusioned at how a hard line has been drawn between the parties with the respective labels of “good” and “evil.” It’s interesting how the integrity of the Bush/Cheney Administration is a sacred cow to some, such as the featured review on this site for “Fair Game” in particular. It’s also ironic how the critique on the film’s factual veracity and the ensuing defense of the administration are not altogether unlike the arguments and rhetorics for the existence of WMDs.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Excellent! / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Ray Herrera, age 44 (USA)




Movie Critics
…a strident, condescending Hollywood melodrama. …
—Ty Burr, The Boston Globe
…a shame Liman’s picture never rises to his stars’ level—in a cruel twist of film fate, both Penn and Watts are stuck delivering potentially award-winning performances in a strictly middling espionage thriller. … If the film weren’t so otherwise poorly constructed, there would be no question as to Watts’ presence at next year’s Oscars. …
—Barry Hertz, National Post
…Truth is, you don’t need to watch “Fair Game” to learn their lessons. Though a competent and well-acted piece of cinema, the film slogs through a bit of foul content and, in the end, lurches to an unsatisfying ending—not unlike the real Valerie Plame story. …
—Paul Asay, Plugged In
…The movie is often a curiously bland, unemotional affair, as if the political seriousness of the material muffled Liman’s gifts as an entertainer. …
—Gary Thompson, Philadelphia Daily News
…it’s an absorbing thriller honoring its subjects without making them saints. …
—Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
…a bit too much righteous outrage and not quite enough solid drama…
—Justin Chang, Variety