Fair Game

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

These sixteen words, spoken by George W. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address, became the impetus for war. The State Department said they were based on intelligence reports; said reports were later found by the International Atomic Energy Agency among other boards of enquiry, to be forged. Ambassador Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn) had been sent by the CIA to Niger—a country where he had held a diplomatic post in the early nineties—in late February 2002 to ascertain whether that country was or had attempted to sell nuclear material (specifically, yellowcake uranium) or biochemical weapons to Saddam Hussein. His finding, and that of a separate enquiry by other CIA operatives, was that such transactions did not take place.

After Bush’s address, Wilson wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times called “What I didn’t find in Africa,” which showed Bush’s statement to be a blatant lie. Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame—a covert operative working in the CIA’s Counter-Proliferation division played here by Naomi Watts—was part of the team that was tasked with figuring out what Niger may have been providing Saddam. Her status as an undercover agent was revealed to the world by an Op-Ed written in response to Wilson’s, thus sending her world into a tailspin and putting at risk not only the contacts she made in the Middle East and Africa, but also her own family.

The film’s script is refreshingly free of too many clichés, and is entertainingly paced: it bounds between TV footage, the corridors of power and the dusty trouble-spots of the Middle East and Africa. Watts and Penn are a good onscreen couple—as they should be, having had some practice on the sets of 21 Grams and The Assassination of Richard Nixon—but the frenetic camerawork throughout the entire film—what I like to call Restless Cameraman Syndrome—is a blight on the direction, and detracts from the bulk of the story. (The one scene in which a shaky camera should make proceedings more urgent, more thrilling, is in an intense, brief skirmish in Baghdad; like the boy who cried wolf, though, it has no impact because throughout the rest of the film—even in calm scenes where mom and dad are just getting the kids ready for school in the morning—the camera never sits still, not even for a moment. The incessant, pounding action-movie score is also to blame in this department.)

Doug Liman, whose work has always been full of energy and bravado, was the wrong director to make this film. (Say what you will about the acting in 1999’s Go, but the direction was top-notch. Perhaps anticipating his current trajectory, Liman unfortunately strayed into explosive one-cut-every-three-seconds territory with the Bourne trilogy.) Based on books by Wilson and Plame, Fair Game, could have been an interesting if necessarily pedestrian replay of recent history.

Sadly, with an action-movie director intent on delivering thrills and neat endings at the expense of a carefully crafted narrative, it’s ended up being a standard-issue political thriller. After its steady first half, the film segues uncomfortably into almost parodical melodrama, and ends (on a supposedly upbeat note) with a laughably polemical leftist rant from Wilson, whose hippie-ish long hair is only trimmed for this final scene.

Cross-posted at The Corner.