Fair Game, based on the true story of the outing of an undercover CIA operative, is set less than a decade ago. Our innocence of government-as-our-protector is long gone; so, too, is our faith in the media to cover issues thoughtfully, to uncover true corruption. That’s just how our perspective is now. In forty years, things may have swung the other way entirely.
Because many aspects of life are now so very polarized, we approach a movie like this much differently than its predecessors. Here are the facts: a war was unleashed based on faulty information. A man who had been sent to verify that information (and found it faulty), angered that his assessment was twisted, wrote an Op-Ed article explaining himself. It turned out that the man’s wife was an undercover CIA agent and that she had been asked to recommend his mission to verify the information. In apparent retaliation for this act, certain powerful people revealed the real name and address of the covert agent. Had this issue been presented in 1973, our lonely eyes would have turned to the press to sort it out, as Woodward and Bernstein did with Watergate (through a lot of hard work). Those days are gone, and we are left to decide for ourselves what is true and what is not.
The movie certainly has a slant to it. Most viewers will have already decided for themselves whether that slant reflects reality or fantasy, as these events were not small scale and under the radar. My personal belief is that the movie is factual (to the degree at which it is trustworthy), and that itself depresses me. That’s because, unlike All the President’s Men, this story not only has no happy ending, it’s an ongoing tale that, as it progresses, makes one feel worse by the second.
This is the kind of movie that Warren Beatty would have been in during the 1970s – it has a good Parallax View feel to it – and its star, Sean Penn, is no stranger to voicing his opinion on matters politic. If you find his view unsettling, then this movie has nothing to offer you. We know the ending (to date). We know the results. So how much we enjoy this movie depends wholly on how much we identify with the viewpoints of both Penn’s character (former Ambassador Joe Wilson, sent to verify the information) and that of Naomi Watts (the outed agent). Are they themselves trustworthy? Do you sympathize with them, or do you feel they brought their own problems onto themselves? We know what the movie wants us to believe. What we wind up believing is probably going to differ from moviegoer to moviegoer.
The movie is prefaced by a short speech to the camera by the actual former agent, Valerie Plame, and concludes with her actual testimony to Congress on the matter. But this is not supposed to be a documentary, and I presume that some of the facts have been fudged to make things more cinematic. I can live with that. What does that leave us, then? Passion, compassion, the validity of truth, the arrogance of power, and other writ-large themes. And, it should be mentioned, two terrific, heart-felt performances by Penn and Watts, who as usual inhabit their roles, becoming less actors and more players in a drama that’s beyond their comprension.
As pure entertainment, Fair Game isn’t at the top of the heap. It’s not that it drags, it’s that it’s hanging its hat on events in progress, a moving target of a point. It never meanders, but its endgame is obvious and knowable. What really saves it, believe it or not, are two crucial scenes near the end, scenes that are powerful in their circumspection and their emotion. Watching those two particular scenes wasn’t easy; both Penn and Watts have a way of grabbing you with their characters here and embracing you – not in an effort to get you on their side but simply to feel something, anything.
Fair Game: ***