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MOVIE REVIEW

Fair Game

D.C. drama goes Hollywood

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / November 5, 2010

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‘Fair Game’’ takes one of the more shameful sub-chapters in modern US politics — the Bush administration’s outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame in retaliation for her ex-diplomat husband Joe Wilson’s public comments on the Iraq War — and turns it into a strident, condescending Hollywood melodrama.

It’s one of those nobly intended affairs in which Important Stars explain to us how we’ve been screwed by our elected representatives. Naomi Watts, doing interesting things with her teeth, plays Plame, a harried Washington-area working mom who secretly jets about the globe digging up intel on terrorists. Sean Penn is Joe Wilson, whose profitable consulting business in international affairs can’t disguise his frustration with being a DC househusband.

Director Doug Liman works hard to show us the reality of Plame’s working life: the deals she cuts with informants in Kuala Lumpur, the way she cajoles Americanized Iraqis into spying on their families back home. It’s not glamorous and it’s not meant to be. As the Bush White House gears up for war after 9/11, Plame’s CIA bosses are pressured for evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. This is illustrated by one of Dick Cheney’s wonks talking about the “nuculer’’ threat, an easy shot the filmmakers simply can’t resist.

As we now know, neither the evidence nor the weapons existed. The first half of “Fair Game’’ plays out as an intriguing struggle between the CIA’s smug pragmatism and the White House’s rampaging ideology. When Wilson’s report on a Nigerian nonconnection is willfully distorted by the administration, he lets fly in the pages of The New York Times. Cheney’s man Scooter Libby (David Andrews) vows to “change the story,’’ and soon Plame’s cover is blown in the Washington Post.

At this point “Fair Game’’ falls apart, because it can’t decide whether to tell its story from the inside or the outside. The movie’s a partisan project and it has to be; what happened to the Plame-Wilsons was, by any measure, wrong. Yet in trying to humanize what for many moviegoers is a knotty news story ill-served by TV soundbites, “Fair Game’’ dumbs down its message and performances to the level of a public-service soap opera.

Without her job, Watts’s Plame turns into a disconsolate noodle, while Penn’s Wilson leaps at the chance to matter once more, appearing on any news show that will have him. The latter, especially, is an interesting development, suggesting that Joe’s ego was as much on the line as his wife’s career. Yet since complexity of character takes the film off-message, “Fair Game’’ backs away from Wilson’s self-aggrandizing side, repositioning him as a hero for the home stretch. He was that and he was human, but the movie can’t settle on the proportions.

You can feel “Fair Game’’ trying to squeeze its events into the confines of a narrative that we’ll “get,’’ and the effort feels high-handed, to say the least. (Documentaries like Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight’’ do a better job with far less patronizing.) In case you were worried about thinking for yourself, the movie ends with a thundering speech by Wilson about our own responsibilities as citizens and civic watchdogs. He delivers it to a classroom but he’s really talking to us, and you sense that Penn took the role for this scene alone. If the sentiments are on-target, the approach is pure boilerplate, soldered on to the story without finesse. Having fought the urge to lecture for 100-odd minutes, “Fair Game’’ finally loses.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

FAIR GAME

Directed by: Doug Liman

Written by: Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, based on “Fair Game’’ by

Valerie Plame and “The Politics of Truth’’ by Joseph Wilson

Starring: Naomi Watts,

Sean Penn, David Andrews

At: Boston Common, Coolidge, Kendall Square, West Newton

Running time: 104 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (language)

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