"Change the story," suggests a fictionalized Karl Rove in the political drama Fair Game. Rove and Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, brainstorm ideas for damage control when former Ambassador Joe Wilson disputes the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein bought yellowcake uranium for Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons program. Fair Game asserts that the White House outed Wilson's wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame, to divert the news cycle to a less explosive subject.
Fair Game attempts to change the story back to the political motives behind the misleading case for the Iraq War and the campaign to discredit Wilson and Plame, played by Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. Director Doug Liman, who helmed The Bourne Identity, brings spy-flick panache to the film's globe-trotting missions and cut-throat bureaucracy, but A-list, Oscar-bait film productions can carry their own narrative distortions.
The film introduces Plame as an international woman of mystery. She jets to exotic locales like Kuala Lumpur and Cairo to negotiate with shifty individuals involved with the international arms trade. Back in the States, her friends only know her as some kind of financier who loves her kids and husband. When the CIA investigates rumors that Niger sold uranium to Iraq, Wilson's experience with the region qualifies him to visit Africa. (The film emphasizes that Wilson wasn't paid for the Niger trip, which becomes a point of contention later.)
Amid snappy scenes of Third World legwork, Wilson concludes that the supposed sale probably never happened. But he and Plame discover that reality-based judgments aren't welcome during the run-up to the Iraq War. At the CIA's cramped offices, Plame and her colleagues face pressure to endorse the theory that Iraq purchased aluminum tubes for its sinister purposes when evidence points to the contrary. Plame goes to the source by enlisting former Iraqis to contact their relatives with connections to Hussein's scientists.
The film uses clips from George W. Bush's State of the Union speech making the case for war, as well as various administration figures reciting the "smoking gun/mushroom cloud" party line. After the U.S. wages war on Iraq, Wilson publishes a New York Times piece about the nonexistent Niger sale, and shortly thereafter, Plame's cover gets blown in the media. The outing occurs right when Plame attempts to get some Iraqi scientists out of the country, but so much political disgrace falls on her that her contacts are abandoned. Perhaps Fair Game's most oddly memorable moment depicts an Iraqi father and his young son trying to escape a traffic jam as chaos descends on Baghdad.
David Andrews embodies government arrogance and bureaucratic sophistry as Libby, who challenges the CIA to subscribe to the story. Andrews gives a deliciously hateful performance, but Fair Game misleads about what Libby did. The film implies that he and Rove were the architects of the outing, but the where-are-they-now? titles at the end reveal it was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Nor does the film provide much context for Libby's convictions for perjury and obstruction of justice.
Fair Game's first two acts explore the Catch-22s of gathering global intelligence in an environment controlled by political expediency. At times, it resembles Armando Iannucci's brilliant British satire In the Loop, only without the laughs. The second act, however, switches to the couple's marital strains during the subsequent media frenzy, when strangers call them traitors on a daily basis. The stakes feel considerably diminished, and Plame's months of discrete silence render the role unavoidably passive for most of the movie.
Although the film was based on memoirs by both Plame and Wilson, he comes across as a proud grandstander prone to browbeating his friends when they discuss post-911 politics over the dinner table. Unfortunately, Penn may be the last person who should play such a role, given the actor's own public image as a humorless, self-righteous scold. When Wilson lectures to college students or bickers with his wife, the character becomes almost insufferable. A more charming actor, like Tom Hanks or George Clooney, could have presented a richer performance with lighter shades.
Even during the Bush administration, anti-Dubya films tended to be heavy-handed and wearying, and the events of Fair Game seem like a lifetime ago. Political attacks never go out of style, particularly in a 24-hour news cycle. Fair Game analyzes the tactics of spin and smear that thrive today. Plus, the film acknowledges that despite the tribulations of Plame and Wilson, Iraqi civilians were the real victims.