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Movie “Fair Game” Falls Short, But Offers Significant Revelations

“Fair Game” is an ambitious movie with a profound story to tell.

Joe Wilson publicly and passionately challenged the assertion by the Bush administration when it cited false CIA intelligence that yellow cake uranium was being accessed from Africa by the Iraq Hussein regime for those proverbial “WMDs”. As a consequence, Wilson’s CIA-operative wife, Valerie Plame, had her identity revealed to the public and the Wilsons were vilified by Bush operatives, supporters and a callous, often disinforming media. Valerie Plame, after an 18-year career in the CIA, and her family, were afforded no federal protection though the disclosure and the controversy opened them up to harassment by revenge-bent rightist wingnuts. Plame’s autobiography was even treated to over-the-top redaction by governmental officialdom.

Sadly, this movie while being highly informative, missed some opportunities in emotionally engaging viewers. For a few seconds into the movie I thought it had wisely begun with a bit of the original love meet-up of its two principles, Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson. It could have built an emotional momentum, letting the characters, seeming temperamental opposites -- she with stoic poise and natural reserve and he with shoot from the hip, bold righteousness -- seduce the audience as we see them seducing each other. It would have let us see the marital team at its original roots-building that the ruthlessness of the Bush regime and an amoral media later sorely challenged. It would have offered a nice energy and a romantic counterpoint to the ambushes and strain that occurred for them for so long.

Instead, we are introduced to the characters of Joe and Valerie when they are sadly remote from each other and frustratingly remote from the audience. We meet them in media res, the middle of a sagging, challenged, what the characters themselves call “post-it” marriage. We meet up with Joe Wilson after his Clinton administration prime, with drawing board renewing career start-ups, and his picking up parental slack for his wife, with her clandestine, fast-track CIA international activities.

I found myself getting impatient with the locked-channel expressions on the faces of Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. Penn had to establish characterization with occasional bombastic outbursts at dinner parties or from a most generalized engagement with the children, who seemed more careless props than actual, vulnerable-to-the-chronic-parental-tension human beings. When Penn was on camera I found myself counting the times he repeated the Joe Wilson mannerism of peering over his glasses.

Whenever Naomi Watts appeared with a look of emotional “constipation” I kept remarking to myself how much she looked like Nicole Kidman or how her clothes were maybe a tad too tight. Was there really no way to inspire more empathy for this character sooner in the movie? I have no doubt Valerie Plame was thrown into long-term shock. Still. There seemed few on-ramps for empathy with her constant girded but pain-leaking stoicism. It wasn’t until late in the movie when the character was brushing her teeth, estranged from her husband, Watts finally managed to engage me emotionally as a viewer.

I wanted to care about these characters as much on the screen as I did from the real life story as I understood it. I was so ready to. It didn’t happen. I had even attended a book promotion and gotten to speak a bit with Valerie Plame a couple of years ago in NYC. I was sure I would make the easiest of audiences for this movie.

Perhaps I was cranky judging these actors because I was impatient with a movie, again that I came ready to cheer on, from another frustrating as well as exhausting choice it had made. So much time was spent at the beginning of the movie building up the credibility of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. I appreciate that she was involved with counter-proliferation. I appreciate she was earnest and committed to important intelligence work. But especially George Tenet’s trickle down CIA malleability to the Bush administration made me wary to unconditionally endorse the covert trips to global destinations by Plame. It felt like an over-sell. Was there still a quantity of kool-aid in Valerie Plame’s thermos, even after the Bush betrayals, that influenced the outline of this movie I wondered? After all, CIA covert operative was her chosen career. When I caught her and her husband on Tavis Smiley a while ago and Smiley broached the subject of Wikileaks, she voiced distrust of its intentions and revelations. After the aluminum tubes and yellow cake uranium “bull shit” of the Bush administration, I expected her to have more appreciation for the dramatic transparency of Wikileaks.

The evils of U.S. hegemony, not just during the Bush administration, should not be minimized. The corporate-agendaed and thus psychopathic profit-over-people opportunism resulting in violence and massive betrayal of so many people across the globe by the U.S. military network did not leave me ripe for significant empathy for the work of the CIA in general for that sustained, early portion of the movie.

I do feel enormously sorry for the CIA operatives in the field who were and are professional and conscience-driven, as well as the middle-management people at Langley who were, along with Plame, betrayed by the cherry-picking of intelligence for political manipulation by the dictatorial Bush cabal. And I admire that the NIEs despite executive pressure have not been contaminated since, it would seem, to justify a war with Iran, though in Bush’s new book he expresses exasperation with that show of integrity. (The amorality and arrogance of Bush continues to shock and awe.)

But I felt the writers of “Fair Game” were naive in expecting audience members, especially angry liberals like myself, to be emotionally caught up and admiring in watching the covert activities, even of an ambushed-into-notoriety and current activist and national heroine like Valerie Plame. Also, although Valerie Plame undoubtedly put her life in jeopardy for her intelligence gathering, such “adventurism” so impressive maybe when hearing of it in real life is still no competition on screen for those fictional Angelina Jolie type hyper-adventure hijinks. I felt the “movie time” should have been applied elsewhere rather than trying to set up action-tension moments with Ms. Plame.

It was, on the other hand, most compelling for me to see the appearances of members of the vice president’s mafia like Libby begin to infiltrate the CIA at Langley, to harass and pressure for the intelligence most convenient for the Iraq war-mongering of the Bush regime. How the patriarchal power structure made the intelligence gathering so vulnerable to manipulation.

It was inspiring to witness the stamina and courage of this couple that had become nationally exposed and under attack by a vicious “say and do anything” regime and media. It is especially compelling for the women in America to learn more of the courage and dignity of a heroine/survivor of that political smear campaign, Valerie Plame, and celebrate her as a female national role model.

There was and is a certain mystique around Valerie Plame. She has such startling good looks, with that glowing blonde, perfectly coifed hair. So slim, well-dressed and well-groomed. Her impeccable social self-possession. She weathered so much and was ultimately willing to write and speak about this crisis in her life and her recovery from it. The story of betrayal finally shared in her own words. How it had rocked both her identity and her marriage.

The media is especially unkind to women, even the attractive ones. Women are often forced immediately into caricature slots as madonnas, aging madonnas, bitches, whores, vapid beauties or just not seriously attractive enough to be anything but mocked or ignored (or a combination of some or trade-off from one to another). Valerie Plame’s initial silence and passivity when her story broke, especially contrasted with her husband’s assertiveness, confused and disappointed me a bit. But I think it protected her privacy and dignity to a degree from the callous categorization of media-frenzied infotainment. Also, I had understood in part her aloofness from participating in the national conversation about her and her husband was from legal and professional restrictions on her given her ex-federal status. After reading her autobiography and seeing the movie, I appreciated how Ms. Plame had to deal with the proverbial 5 stages of grief after having been victimized so profoundly and publicly, and I think this too added to her reluctance to try to use the media in her own self-defense originally.

She was victimized by the federal department that she had committed herself to so earnestly for 18 years. It let her and the foreign people counting on her protection twist in the wind, some even to die as the movie conveys. She was also profoundly impacted by the public assertions of her husband to defend both of them when she herself it seemed was not -- especially at the beginning -- entirely on board, at least emotionally, with his vigorous accusations against the Bush administration and the CIA of which she had held an active, middle-management role for so many years.

As I happened to be writing the draft of this review long-hand in a late night diner last weekend, I suddenly realized a gregarious, middle-aged waiter refreshing my coffee had been trying to ask me a question. I looked up, getting ready to decline an invitation for a dessert maybe. Instead, he repeated himself in a voice that was meant for the stage, “SO HOW COME YOU ARE NOT MARRIED?” He casually indicated my ringless ring finger. WHAAAAT???? I was dismayed at his sense of entitlement, to ask such an inappropriate private question of me. A question he would never in a million years have broached to a male diner sitting alone with a ringless ring finger. Just when my head was filled with the privacy and image problems of the Valerie Plames or even Hillary Clintons, Sarah Palins, etc. in the world at the hands of the political patriarchy and a ruthless media, I myself am ambushed by an impertinent waiter’s insensitivity and sexist reductionism. Geeeeeesh. Apparently any woman is "fair game."

As for the movie “Fair Game,” I appreciated its disclosures. I wish it had lifted me more emotionally. I wonder if the hovering egos of the principles with their justifiably righteous perspectives impacted the willingness of the screenwriters or director to portray their characters with more intimacy and less one-channel intensity.

I hope Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson continue to communicate with the American people. They are heros because of their fight for dignity and exoneration against corrupt and arrogant power. I hope the Valerie Plame story, in particular, will be portrayed and explored further for the sake of women in America ever seeking wholesome female role models of leadership and real courage.

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Eureka Springs's picture
Submitted by Eureka Springs on

I will remember and appreciate this review far more than the movie. That said, the details, nor dangers of the story were something which I never expected a Hollywood film to explore/portray in the depth needed. I'll probably wait 'til it's available on netflix.

Hope you had some mashed potatoes remaining and a fork for flinging them at that waiter, LL!

Submitted by libbyliberal on

The movie covered a lot of bases and did a noble job, but at the sacrifice of close up poignancy through more sustained acting scenes between the principles imho.

Around the middle it was giving me a kind of All the Prez's Men feel, which movie I loved, but then it got uneven again.

Re the waiter, I wish I had made it a more teachable moment with him for womanhood. Like this movie, I, too, fell short. I kinda went into deer before headlights mode re his inquiry as to my marital status. At first I was self-deprecating and dismissive but then when he tried to launch into a paternal pep talk I cut him off, annoyed, but without the serious vocal muscle I wish I had had. That was ready to come when I was around the corner and half way up the block. The rise of the indignation. Where was my inner bitch (babe-in-total-control-of-herself) when I needed her? Sometimes she rises up when blogging, but IRL, not so much. Too frightened of being categorized as a bitch I suppose. I just should have quietly and levelly asked, "How dare you ask me such a question?" and waited. Or, better yet, aimed the Meryl Streep look of contempt without words (from Devil Wears Prada) at him. Not for frequent usage, but like a laser when justified. I can dream.

I had dared to be alone on a Saturday date night in a diner taking up a whole booth I suppose. Not embarrassed enough apparently. I mean I guess that waiter didn't see the Sex & the City episode when Carrie Bradshaw taught Charlotte that that was okay, to be out, a single female, on Saturday night, go to a movie, out to dinner, etc. You would think it would be okay in NYC. Maybe not for Middle European (?) waiters in NYC? Sigh. Well, at least I found some catharsis relating it here. :)

Submitted by PA_Lady on

I now feel rather justified in my decision not to see it until it comes out on DVD and I can rent it on $1 Tuesday. I have a real dislike for most of what comes out of Hollywood these days -- it's either grown men acting like 14-year-old boys or masturbation material for 14-year-old boys and the grown men who act like them. Or they're just destroying classics from my childhood. [shakes fist at the makers of Scooby-Doo]

Instead, he repeated himself in a voice that was meant for the stage, “SO HOW COME YOU ARE NOT MARRIED?”

I've had this sort of thing happen as well, many times. And if I do come up with an appropriate retort at the time, rather than a hour later... well, I'm just a crazy man-hating bitch when all he was trying to do was compliment me. Or something.

Looking at it in light of your experience makes me wonder -- How much of Valerie Plame's treatment by/in the media was the result of her gender? How much of it was the result of fitting the trope of the "glamorous female spy/real-life Angelina Jolie character." Would Joe Wilson have been treated the same had their occupations been reversed?

Submitted by libbyliberal on

I've always been an Anglophile in terms of movies and even BBC tv. The Brits seem to respect how compelling realistic characterization can be. Authentic facial expressions for me beat kung fu like violence. Don't underestimate a human being's capacity for nuance. But they do. And guess what happens. Role expectation. American audiences are deliberately dumbed down.

One doesn't have to be violent to get attention. American moviemakers too often resort to "shock and awe". Saturate the citizenry with scenes of violence. God, that alone will traumatize a nation. We are all getting like Chauncey Gardener in Being There. Can I just turn off the remote on the real nightmare evil destruction done in my name with my tax dollars?

I went to see Speech of the King. Now Colin Firth could read the NYC phone book to me and I would pay and sit for hours watching and listening. This movie is a home run. Geoffrey Rush is also incredible. This movie hits all the points and is dazzling and at the same time, so spare and simple. Even with respect for the children. They are not on long, but they are treated as real people.

Re Plame and the bear trap for women on the national stage. Invitation to be fantasized about and then condemned for not being the perfect woman whatever that is? And thus as a woman you can't be taken all that seriously anyway.But for a while the image of the perfect celebrity woman is held up there so women can use her outsides and imagined perfect insides to feel badly about their own insides and outsides, too. Hate their own "imperfections" and sense of powerlessness and get role confusion, cuz God knows this is an appearance over substance, consumer over citizen, power over integrity society.

Plame asserts she herself had an identity crisis. Dealing with your own identity crisis and then having a craven media manipulating your image simultaneously must be an extra level of hell. She took her place in a patriarchal organization, maybe grew up as a "daddy's girl" and was one of those "special women" who fits in, at least for a while in a heavily male community. But I am now speculating myself which is I admit intrusive. I am sure made a lot of assumptions of safety and respect for her ability among that society. All the assumptions women make that they are being respected as equal righted human beings, but there are those tricky double standards and that nasty ol' sexism that rears its head ferociously from time to time and can be merciless. All you have to do is read Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter to get it. I should reread after all these years.

And I am sure she was appreciated for her intuition and smarts as well as her appearance. And was spy, wife, mommy, and whatever other roles to the best of her human being ability and life history. And a lot of acting required to pull off the clandestine dimensions. And to feel like a player. And then to be kicked to the curb by a soulless, anti-humane, anti-human and anti-legal rights regime that you had been full throttle enabling. And have to rally and learn and reassert who you are to yourself and to deal with a rather broken American world and re-find a purposeful place in it. And you are also tied to your husband who is responding full out and he is being a catalyst for the extra insane degree of tumult in your life to an extent too and you have to process that and deal with it and find the balance but it is hell in the hallway.

i often think of Sylvia Plath and her struggles as a writer and intellectual and a woman. The demands of our gender. The double standards for women. And now for kids, young women. Be sophisticated and sexy. If you get pregnant or are considered a slut you are vilified. If you are a virgin you are mocked. Hmmmm. Where is that line that is secure and safe for women ... that "tightrope" ... BUT tightropes are not safe and secure places. And there is not much of one for men and boys, a tightrope (though... I reconsider here ... they have their own hells to sort through in terms of suck it up and don't show those feelings ... or kill yourself if you do. I am thinking of soldier suicides now).

So girls who are seduced by boys when they are naive and ungrounded yet as fully assertive human beings (just as the boys are still unformed) are left stunned at that double standard. A double bind for girls. And girls often use the male-created standards to judge each other, which is the sad part. High expectations we have of you, but be docile. You slip into bitchdom really fast if you assert. Sexism still exists with some men, even men who seem very "new age-y". Yes, there are great advances. Growing up for me -- women jobs were teacher, nurse or secretary. Now, well, when jobs were more plentiful (please God bring it back) women had more entries into the work place, more CHOICES. But still, guess what gender the Masters of the Universe are? And guess what shivving of fellow women a rare woman must do to gain entrance?

There used to be a joke about how if a man started a war perhaps then would he be considered aggressive (and maybe not in a bad way ... more admired). If a woman put a man on hold on a phone? The bitch.

Valhalla's picture
Submitted by Valhalla on

I'm a big Miss Manners fan, and I have to say she usually endorses an overly-mannered response to rudeness (your waiter!) rather than going the would-be-perceived-as-bitchy route. Or the intentional and persistent misunderstanding/non sequitur, for instance "No thank you, I don't think I'll be having dessert. What's that? No, just the check is fine" regardless of the type or depth of inquiry into your marital status (sheesh!).

NOT that I ever manage that sort of clever response myself, mind. Although I have been waiting for just the right opportunity to crib from Jane Austen and tell someone "I have not the pleasure of understanding you."

Submitted by libbyliberal on

And the bitch route certainly lends itself to further censure. Though sometimes the subtle more mannerly but sarcastic self contained route is lost on the yahoo coming after you. But you yourself rallied. I love that line, "I have not the pleasure of understanding you." Lovely. Will practice it. Even saying, "Excuse me?" with a no-nonsense look and asking the yahoo to repeat it is a step in the right direction to gain some control back. "Oh, that is what I thought you said, but I couldn't believe you would have the nerve to ask me that." Make that the focus, not your personal life.

My issue is my "dinosaur reaction time" when my boundaries are violated by some bumper car personality, to really mix metaphors. You know, that slowness of when a dinosaur's tail was injured and it took so long for that message to make its way up to the dinosaur's tiny brain. I tend to introvert, even with the impertinent waiter, well, it was my fault to be so chatty the last time I was in that he became invasive. I must learn not to do that, punish myself after someone has ambushed me. So, not one hit, but 2. From him, and then my self-blame. Maybe 3. My blame at my own do-nothingness (though that awareness is worth exploring). Nothing wrong with my friendliness. He went too far, not me. He stepped over the line, my line, and I was affronted but not as self-protective as I wanted to be. Flight, fight or freeze are three choices when a living being is ambushed. I so often "freeze" initially. And opportunities for empowerment slip by me, and teachable moments for others re human dignity. So often growing up I was accused of "oversensitivity" when an insensitive person abused me and would not take responsibility when I did protest. I was impressed always by the conviction of their innocence. Ick. Now those rare times I do protest closer to the moment, I often become overemotional because I am defensive to hear that accusation once again. A second dose of invalidation. But it is about honoring oneself and having a sense of dignity. But they say use the 3 As. Becoming "aware" of what goes on, "accept" that is where you are at in your own emotional capacity, and then take the "action". That comes last, alas. I want and need to cultivate my sense of personal dignity and entitlement. Bring on the next waiter. :)

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

I haven't seen the film yet, and probably will one day. But thanks for this very deep and sensitive review. I don't know that much about the internals of these two; but when one sees them in a joint interview, they seem a together couple to me. So, I think they've survived this ordeal, which given their circumstances and the pressure is a pretty good trick.

Submitted by libbyliberal on

... and she and he had to deal with that dirty dealing and its consequences and recover as a couple and individuals. More power to them.

One more example of how far the corrupt leadership will go to exert its insane will. But it shows how individuals can and will fight back, and go through the mess and sacrifice. It isn't easy to say no and truth to power. They sure don't throw you a parade. Wilson publishing that article, "What I Didn't Find In Africa" ... the thugs could not let him get away with that "emperor has no clothes" declaration. And War with Iraq happened. Chilling.