[Screen It]

(2010) (Naomi Watts, Sean Penn) (PG-13)

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Drama: A covert CIA agent must contend with her cover being blown by White House officials who want to get revenge on her husband for publically disputing their reasoning for invading Iraq.
Valerie Plame (NAOMI WATTS) and Joseph Wilson (SEAN PENN) are a married couple with two young kids who tolerate dinner parties where their friends and acquaintances express their opinions about the political doings of 2002. While they know Joseph is a former U.S. Ambassador, little do they realize he does secret investigatory work for the CIA. Or that he gets such assignments due to Valerie actually being a covert agent who's recently been promoted to head the agency's Counter-Proliferation division investigating whether Iraq is trying to build weapons of mass destruction.

Along with her boss, Paul (TIM GRIFFIN), and others, Valerie examines the evidence and interviews various people who might have knowledge about such activities. That includes Zahraa (LIRAZ CHARHI) whose brother, Hamed (KHALED NABAWY), is a former Iraqi scientist. As Valerie arranges to get him and his family to safety out of Iraq, Joseph is sent to Niger to investigate whether the Iraqis have purchased 500 tons of uranium as reported. When he learns that never happened, but White House Officials are continuing to spread the story that it did, he writes an op-ed in the New York Times detailing his observation.

This infuriates the likes of Scooter Libby (DAVID ANDREWS) and other White House officials. As a result, and to get revenge on Joseph, Valerie is outed to a reporter and her name and occupation are published in the newspaper. As she tries to do damage control but gets no support from those above her, including Jim Pavitt (BRUCE McGILL), Joseph goes on the warpath, hitting every media outlet he can to let the country and world know what's happened. All of that puts a strain on their marriage, with her confiding in her father, Sam Plame (SAM SHEPARD), about what's occurred. From that point on, they must figure out the right thing to do.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
I'm no presidential historian, but I'd guess one would be hard pressed to find a U.S. President (or presidential administration) who wasn't mired in some sort of controversy or who enacted policy that some/many citizens didn't approve. As of this review's publication, focus on that has been on President Obama, his healthcare reform bill, the bailout of banks and much more. Granted, one need only go back one administration to find another slew of controversies, the biggest of which was probably the decision to invade Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program (and in doing so raise the national debt and help cause the economic woes we currently face).

Of course, as most everyone knows (or at least those who pay attention), there were no WMDs and thus the reasoning for the war and its now seven-year aftermath was unfounded. What many people seem to have forgotten, overlooked or simply were never aware was someone or a group of officials in the White House deciding to get revenge on a former U.S. ambassador for refuting their claims by outing his wife as a covert CIA operative.

The leak to columnist Robert Novak -- who was the first to publish that Valerie Plame was a government spook -- rocked the "inside the Beltway" world, and was reported outside that, but quickly lost traction with the rest of the country. And that's despite Scooter Libby -- Chief of Staff for the Vice President -- being indicted and convicted as the perpetrator or, as many contend, the fall guy for much bigger figures. Whatever the case, it's a fascinating, damning and scary real-life story of the abuse of power and how far the government can go to settle a grudge, even if that means ruining the classified career of one its own.

That story now arrives on the big screen in the form of "Fair Game," based not on the awful Cindy Crawford and William Baldwin film of the same name, but rather Plame's 2007 memoir, "Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House." As directed by Doug Liman from a script by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth, the film should have everything going for it.

After all, beyond its powerhouse leads -- Naomi Watts (as a near doppelganger of Plame in terms of physical appearance) and Sean Penn doing the intensely indignant thing as her husband -- there's the "fact is stranger than fiction" angle, the abusively corrupt government story elements, some likely suspense and related intrigue, and the classic tale of the underdog having to battle the establishment in hopes of doing what's right in order to prevail against the long odds.

A funny thing happened, though, somewhere between real life, Plame's memoir and this cinematic adaptation. And that is that it's somehow arrived fairly dramatically inert and seems more like a highlight reel than the deeply interesting and engaging experience it should be. Yes, the tale has built-in, default elements for those outraged by the real-life events, and Watts and Penn deliver strong performances.

But the script -- that condenses years into what seems like days or weeks for those not familiar with the story -- has them and others mostly go through the necessary motions that don't necessarily pull us into their world. For those who already know the particulars, the film offers nothing new and seems late to the game (much like "Green Zone" from earlier this year that covered some of the same WMD material). For those coming in cold, the plot is easy enough to follow, but doesn't fully deliver in terms of intriguing the viewer, be that regarding the government workings, supposed shocking developments or the domestic strife all of that caused for the couple.

Liman (who previously helmed the likes of "Jumper," "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," "The Bourne Identity" and "Swingers" figuratively and literally tries to shake things up by refusing to use a tripod or Steadicam. Yet, all of the shaky handheld camerawork in the world (including some nausea inducing close-ups that bounce all over the place) similarly fails in making the movie edgy (which, I assume, is the goal). A subplot regarding a former Iraqi scientist (Khaled Nabawy) who Plame is trying to get out of Iraq (along with his family, in the middle of the war) is presumably designed with the same intent (of breathing some action life into the proceedings) but similarly is lacking the necessary cinematic oomph to do so.

None of which is meant to imply the picture is bad by any means. It's certainly competent, but both the leads and the audience end up shortchanged when a decent movie should have been better and maybe even great. Considering how no films to my knowledge about the Iraq war or the build up to that have drawn more than meager interest by moviegoers, the film faces an uphill battle in terms of drawing an audience.

Perhaps if more thriller elements had been added (even if they stretched the truth about what really occurred), the film might have seemed more interesting. As it stands, it's okay, but I was hoping and expecting for so much more considering the subject matter. Easy enough to watch thanks to Watts and Penn, "Fair Game" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 30, 2010 / Posted November 5, 2010

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