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.