If you’re anything like me, you’ve found it difficult to watch the recent interviews of George W. Bush, who’s been making the rounds to promote his memoir, without throwing something at the TV. He’s tanned, relaxed and self-satisfied. Judging by the treatment he’s received from the mainstream media, all is forgiven. Gore Vidal was right: This is the United States of Amnesia.
So the release of Doug (The Bourne Identity) Liman’s lacerating new political drama couldn’t have been more fortuitously timed. Anyone who’s somehow managed to forget that nitwits and scumbags ruled this country for eight long years and ran it into the ground has only to buy a ticket to Fair Game to refresh his or her memory.
This is, of course, the story of Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson. Naomi Watts plays the former covert officer in the CIA’s counter proliferation department. As the movie opens, she’s carrying out orders to investigate Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program and has run up against a problem: He doesn’t appear to have one. This contradicts White House claims. Dick Cheney, in particular, insists that Iraq purchased enriched uranium from Niger. Realizing that the administration has already decided to go to war and is scrambling for justification after the fact, Plame and her superiors have zero interest in being used as patsies.
Those superiors ask Plame to see if her husband, the former ambassador to Niger, is willing to jump on a plane and use his connections to find out what, in fact, did or didn’t happen. Oh, and to do so for free. Sean Penn is note perfect in the role of the dapper one-time diplomat who, as we all know, found out nothing happened. One can understand his consternation on tuning in to the State of the Union address and hearing the president cite Iraq’s purchase of uranium from Niger as one of the reasons the U.S. went to war.
Wilson’s reaction is to set the record straight in a New York Times op-ed piece. Plame’s reaction is to soldier on in silence. The White House’s reaction is to smear Wilson and out his wife — in a violation of federal law. But, hey, when you’re comfortable attacking a sovereign nation under false pretenses, blowing an operative’s cover probably won’t cost you a whole lot of sleep. Even when it results in the murders of dozens of her informants across the Middle East — as many as 70, according to some reports. Scooter Libby took the fall, but you just know his boss, Cheney, was behind it all.
For much of the movie, the couple’s marriage also looks likely to prove a casualty of the crime. The script by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth — based on memoirs by Plame and Wilson — is astute in noting the fissures and fault lines that begin to threaten a relationship systematically subjected to the level of nonstop stress this one was.
Watts does wonderfully subtle, complex work here, and Penn was born for his role. They’re terrifically convincing as imperfect people struggling to find the right path out of an impossible situation. Liman returns to form in the wake of the embarrassment that was Jumper. He gives the picture a riveting, docudrama feel by casting actors in certain key parts (Libby and Karl Rove, for example) but also incorporating archival footage of the president and vice president — in effect, compelling them to play themselves. It’s a ballsy experiment that pays off in a big way.
A piece of advice: Bring your blood-pressure pills if you already use them, and get a prescription before seeing this if you don’t. As in Charles Ferguson’s equally incendiary Inside Job, many evildoers are exposed, but not one pays a price. While he ought to be on trial for war crimes, George W. Bush is on a book tour instead.
* Running time: 108 min.
* Rated: PG-13