Ostensibly the story of Valerie Plame, the CIA operative who wrote Fair Game: How A Top CIA Agent Was Betrayed By Her Own Government, Doug Liman’s fact-based drama Fair Game really belongs to Sean Penn, who adds Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, to his gallery of unforgettable characters. Penn plays the floppy-haired veteran diplomat as a man whose strengths are inextricably connected to his faults. He’s a man of deep, furious convictions unafraid to live by his ideals, even at the cost of the comfort, safety, and happiness of his own family. Fair Game consequently registers at times like a cautionary tale about the downside of rigid, uncompromising idealism.
The intense drama stars Naomi Watts as Plame, a hyper-efficient CIA operative who has mastered the art of lying professionally, an essential skill for the successful undercover agent. But her thriving career becomes collateral damage in the amorphous War On Terror when her husband (Penn) writes an op-ed piece attacking the Bush administration’s rationales for the Iraq War, based on his experiences in Niger. “Scooter” Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff, leaks her identity to columnist Robert Novak in retribution. The leak destroys everything she’s worked decades to achieve, but the worst is yet to come. Instead of backing down, Wilson and Plame’s enemies besmirch their names in the press, smearing Plame as a third-rate agent and Wilson as a broke, desperate, politically motivated opportunist.
Liman gives the action the you-are-there immediacy that distinguished his earlier tale of international intrigue, The Bourne Identity. Documenting history as it’s still being written is inherently tricky, but Liman and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s assured grasp of the material recalls the clear-eyed verisimilitude of All The President’s Men rather than the fuzzy, overwrought mythologizing of W. Liman’s film is powered by a subtle but unmistakable sense of outrage: It’s ultimately a tale of heroism in the face of fearsome, powerful opposition, but as stubborn pride masquerading as ideological purity proves Wilson’s Achilles heel, the film’s heroes reveal themselves as flawed to an almost fatal extent, and messily, fascinatingly human.