Fair Game

Well, here’s a can of worms. “Fair Game” is a dramatization of the Valerie Plame scandal from a few years ago, in which a White House insider leaked the identity of an undercover CIA operative to the press, supposedly in retaliation for the agent’s husband’s public assertions that the Bush Administration had ignored intelligence refuting the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Many people reading reviews of this movie won’t actually be looking for reviews. They’ll be looking for a fact-check report. So let me save you some trouble. According to the credits, the movie is based on the books “Fair Game,” by Valerie Plame, and “The Politics of Truth,” by her husband, Joe Wilson. In other words, the story is entirely from their point of view. If their version of the facts includes any mistakes, lies, or obfuscations, those errors are perpetuated in the film.

The point is, I don’t know for sure what those errors are. (To be blunt, neither do you.) All I can do is tell you what happens in the movie, and tell you that the movie believes it happened more or less the same way in real life. “Fair Game” isn’t investigative journalism or a documentary. It’s Plame and Wilson’s side of the story, and, as such, operates on the assumption that their story is true, and worth telling.

We start in 2001. Valerie Plame (played by Naomi Watts) is a CIA spook working several counter-terrorism angles around the world while telling everyone back home in suburban D.C. that she has some boring job in finance. Her husband, Joe (Sean Penn), a retired U.S. diplomat, knows her real profession, though not the details of her day-to-day assignments.

When reports come in that Saddam Hussein has attempted to buy supplies from Niger that could be used to make nuclear weapons, the CIA needs someone to head to Niger and investigate. Joe, who has done consulting work for the CIA before and has an abundance of experience in Africa, gets the unpaid gig — woo-hoo, free vacation to Niger! — and returns saying it isn’t true. For a variety of reasons that the film lays out logically, Joe says it’s impossible that Saddam could have bought any such stuff from Niger.

A while later, the U.S. goes to war against Iraq on the grounds that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, with Joe’s report used as supporting evidence — the exact opposite of what the report actually said. Joe writes an editorial in The New York Times calling out the White House; soon thereafter, a reporter reveals that Joe’s wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA agent, having learned this from someone in the administration. Valerie’s cover is blown; the people working with her in the Middle East are in jeopardy; her career as a spy is over.

The ensuing controversy, with Joe and Valerie facing off against the White House, their marriage threatened by Joe’s loud-mouthed stubbornness and Valerie’s professional ability to lie convincingly, is riveting David-and-Goliath stuff. This would be so even if it were completely fictional, but let’s not kid ourselves. The film wants us to remember that this all really happened, that it happened very recently, and that it was very, very wrong when it happened. The director, Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”), working from a screenplay adapted by brothers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, means to convey a sense of outrage. Wherever possible, he uses actual news footage of people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, reminding us of the story’s basis in fact.

But even as someone who’s inclined to believe the Plame version of the story and who’s suspicious of the Fox News distractions (She worked for the CIA, but not undercover! She was undercover, but she wasn’t very good at it!), I find a lot of “Fair Game” strident and heavy-handed. Scooter Libby (David Andrews), the vice president’s chief of staff, is portrayed as some kind of Emperor Palpatine-esque mastermind, while Karl Rove (Adam LeFevre) is a nefarious schemer. Even if that’s how they act in real life, it doesn’t matter: in the film, they comes across as unbelievably cartoonish.

In a similar vein, there’s a scene early on where Joe Turner (Kristoffer Winters), a weaselly water-carrier for Dick Cheney, is meeting with the CIA, insisting that some metal tubes Saddam Hussein acquired are DEFINITELY to be used for building a nuclear device. He is certain of it. Others point out the errors in his reasoning, the facts he has gotten wrong. And that’s fine — but they do it, and the movie conveys it, with a self-righteousness that is smug and embarrassing. I thought of the quote attributed to Daniel Dennett: “There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.” The film is OK, but with more nuance and less message-hammering it could have been great.

B- (1 hr., 48 min.; PG-13, moderate profanity including a couple F-bombs.)