Movies: Fair Game ***
(12A, GENERAL RELEASE)
In 2003, as the Bush administration scrambled to produce a convincing pretext for the invasion of Iraq, a high-powered couple got caught in the crossfire.
A Washington-based CIA operative called Valerie Plame had her cover blown following a White House leak because her diplomat husband had dared to contradict the cherished notion that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons.
Doug Liman's Fair Game is inspired by that story, but rarely lets hard facts get in the way of an entertaining yarn.
Naomi Watts is Plame, who has been working undercover around the Middle East in the vital area of non-proliferation when she's told she'll be heading up a team assessing the state of Saddam Hussein's nuclear and biological weapons programmes.
Valerie is ambitious, and aware of the opportunity the job presents, but is also conscientious enough to set out to do it properly.
Shortly afterwards her superiors hire her husband, Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), to travel to Niger and investigate claims that the Iraqi dictator has been buying up large quantities of yellowcake uranium to fuel his nuclear-arms programme.
Wilson, a former US ambassador to several African countries, is well qualified for the task, but when he gets to Niger he finds there is no truth in the allegations, and says so in his subsequent report.
He's shocked, therefore, when a few months later Tony Blair and George W Bush begin stating that Hussein had indeed gone shopping in Africa for uranium.
Feeling understandably outraged and implicated, Wilson goes on TV and writes a New York Times op-ed to set the record straight. But in the Bush White House, this move goes down like a lead balloon.
Following a leak from a high-ranking White House source, Valerie Plane is named in the press as a CIA undercover agent, which effectively ends her career. She's suspended and her husband is branded a mendacious anti-American, and the pair must fight to save their reputations -- and their marriage.
Fair Game was based on separate memoirs by Plame and Wilson and made with their co-operation, and does not even pretend to be impartial. It does, however, present the couple as human rather than heroic, and this is one of the film's strengths. While its principal concern is obviously the WMD cover-up and their role in debunking it, Fair Game also examines the pressure this puts on their marriage, and it's in the domestic scenes that the film really comes to life.
Plame and Wilson have young twin children and, as her career rises while her husband's sinks, he finds it hard to accept the role of partial house husband. Watts' Valerie Plame is an efficient, capable but rather cold and brisk career woman whose worst nightmares come true when she's cast into the media spotlight. Her husband, though, seems rather to enjoy it. Penn's Wilson is a wonderful creation: an arrogant, extremely clever and likeably pompous man who routinely enjoys pointing out to Valerie's friends that they don't know what they're talking about.
His rush to confront the Bush administration is instinctive, and he never pauses to consider the nightmare this will cause his wife. When all hell breaks loose she's in no mood to forgive him, and under the strain of it all their marriage begins to crumble.
Fair Game's strength lies in its depiction of a professional couple in crisis, and both Penn and Watts give nicely grounded performances. Where it scores less well is in a lop-sided dramatic structure that sees the last third of the film fall off a cliff in terms of dramatic tension.
Its politics might have been a little more subtle, too. I'm no fan of Karl Rove or Scooter Libby, but they're presented here as such oily panto villains that I felt like booing every time they appeared. But for all its dramatic faults, the story is a strong one, and Penn is wonderfully watchable as the grandiloquent, show-boating diplomat.
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