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‘Fair Game’: Spying in the Suburbs

Posted on Nov 8, 2010

Wife, mom, spy: Naomi Watts plays Valerie Plame in “Fair Game.”

By Richard Schickel

Words that make your blood run cold: “… [T]he more we heard Valerie and Joe about the effect this had on their marriage, the more we realized that here was a deeply personal human drama.”

What Doug Liman, the director of “Fair Game,” is really saying is that his movie is not going to be a deeply serious investigation of the national security issues raised by the Valerie Plame-Joe Wilson case of 2001, in which she lost her job as a secret CIA operative and her husband became a hotblooded scold of the Bush administration when it denied information he had uncovered that inconvenienced its run-up to the Iraqi invasion. What his film does instead is turn the incident into a sort of situation-melodrama, in which under pressure, both financial and moral, the Plame-Wilson marriage deteriorates into a series of increasingly hostile exchanges between the couple, with bewildered children failing to understand why Mommy and Daddy are yelling at each other and the upshot being a brief trial separation. The film is more about the deterioration of suburban decorum than it is about the deterioration of honor and probity in the upper reaches of American government. 

Here are the slightly boring facts of the matter: Joe, a retired diplomat, is recruited by the administration—with his wife putting in her two-bits in his favor—to investigate rumors that Iraq had attempted to purchase a large quantity of “yellowcake” (i.e. uranium) from Niger. If that was the case, it was a serious indication that Saddam Hussein was, in fact, attempting to fabricate weapons of mass destruction—a hugely important justification for waging war against him. Wilson, however, found no evidence that such a deal had been struck and reported his findings to the Bushies, who nevertheless persisted with their yellowcake fantasies, citing other sources in support of their claim. Wilson then went public with his side of the story, via a New York Times Op-Ed. At that point the government—probably illegally—outed Plame as a spy, which had the significant side effect of endangering the network of secret agents she had been running.

This was unquestionably a shabby incident, the largest import of which was to put human, victimized faces on the administration’s brutal and heedless attempts to manipulate public opinion. It certainly rallied liberal opinion against its operatives—though without any practical effect on the way history eventually played out. One is sympathetic to the film’s attempt to tell this story faithfully and admiring of Naomi Watts’ patient portrayal of a woman whose default setting is discretion and to Sean Penn’s blustery portrait of her noisily obstreperous spouse. But one is also aware that the film’s writers, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, are somewhat trapped by their sources: a pair of books written by the Wilsons. They are unable effectively to penetrate the minds of the government’s shady minions and admit to a good deal of fictionalization about Plame’s CIA activities. At the same time, they are silent about a number of elisions. For example, they don’t even mention Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter whose ambiguous activities in the case significantly affected its outcome and eventually landed her in jail. 

In the end, “Fair Game” represents a further trivialization of what finally seems a fairly trivial incident. It’s not quite “Ozzie and Harriet with Security Clearances,” but there is something inescapably unedifying in watching the Wilsons bicker their way through the clichés of marital disaffection in a case that—let’s face it—was of small import in the context of the much larger crimes perpetrated by a pusillanimous power elite. The movie gives away its failures in its concluding sequence, which finds Joe Wilson addressing a college class, reminding the students that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. It’s a tiresome cliché and not even an entirely appropriate moral for this drama, which is really about minding your back when the ideologues pull out their shivs and start menacing you. It’s supposed to provide the movie with a big, idealistic finish. But it is a forced and fatuous device, an attempt to provide some Big Think to what now seems—at least in this telling—a resolutely minor account of bureaucrats at their typically vicious and largely amoral play.

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By pauldorn, November 12, 2010 at 7:21 pm Link to this comment

I agree with critic Derrick Bang: “Sadly, I rather suspect Fair Game will sink like a stone at the box office, its fate determined by the public indifference to all such films in recent history. And that’s the true shame, as proven by Wilson’s final impassioned speech, delivered to a college audience, at the end of this story:
When the general public can’t be bothered to look beyond sound bites and attack ads, when we refuse to challenge, question and become engaged in the political process, the scoundrels are free to do as they please. As Benjamin Franklin quite famously said – in a statement also referenced in this film – our nation is ‘a republic … if [we] can keep it.’”

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By lasmog, November 11, 2010 at 1:35 pm Link to this comment

Schickel should stick to reviewing the next Toy Story thriller and leave political analysis to the informed.  The outing of Valerie Plame by the thoroughly corrupt Bush Administration was not a “trivial incident.”  It was a shocking abuse of power to silence critics of an unnecessary war. There is nothing ‘trivial’ about tens of thousands of people dying in Iraq or losing our democracy here at home.

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By LillithMc, November 11, 2010 at 1:23 pm Link to this comment

Dick Cheney knew what he was doing when he put the life of Valerie Plame at risk along with her “in country” operatives.  She was to find evidence of wmd’s in Iraq whether they were there or not. It was not all Joe, but Cheney’s fury that his lie was not being covered up by who else but Valerie Plame. That may not be in the movie.

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By lasmog, November 10, 2010 at 8:45 pm Link to this comment
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I thought the outing of Valerie Plame was an outrageous abuse of power by a thoroughly corrupt Administration attempting to silence its critics.  I can’t imagine how Schickel concludes that this was “a fairly trivial incident.”

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By gerard, November 10, 2010 at 8:28 pm Link to this comment

Quote:  ” a case that—let’s face it—was of small import in the context of the much larger crimes perpetrated by a pusillanimous power elite.”

  Depends on your definition of “of small import.”  If you are an official working for your government and its highest officers betray you without reason or warning, cause you to lose your job and run the chance of getting some of your co-workers and/or contacts killed—and maybe yourself; and ultimately results in your husband’s and your integrity questioned, that is not of small import. 
  It is a clear indication that your government will betray you at any moment if they think it can be used to support their lies to the public in order to trump up an unnecessary war, or two or three.
  The film, even though faulty, is a way to help thousands of Americans learn a little something about what happened and remember it for an indefinite period of time. That is valid, unless the film is grossly inaccurate.

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By ardee, November 9, 2010 at 6:20 pm Link to this comment

Lafayette, November 9 at 10:11 am

You may be referencing the film or the review, at least I hope you are.

One must have nothing much in the way of a conscience and no regard for the Law if one seeks to trivialize a government outing of a CIA operative ( and yes she was running people in hostile territory, perhaps some even were murdered because she was outed).

The Bush administration was out of control and in violation of our constitution and international law. This may not get through to some but I bet it does to those who love their nation and abhor what Cheney and his sock puppet president did to it.

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By diamond, November 9, 2010 at 5:34 pm Link to this comment

Fuck off, suhu. You clown.

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By diamond, November 9, 2010 at 6:11 am Link to this comment

It’s not much ado about nothing: her cover was blown which is a crime and she could have been killed. Dick Cheney did this deliberately to punish Joe Wilson for telling the truth about the ‘yellowcake’ that Saddam Hussein was supposed to have bought from Niger. Cheney did this to warn others never to tell the truth in any way, shape or form on this subject. He is a criminal: I don’t consider it of small import or trivial that the Vice President was and is a criminal, especially considering the power he wielded and still wields in certain circles. In a democratic society that cared about the rule of law both Cheney and Bush would be in jail. But if it was a democratic society that cared about the rule of law it wouldn’t be America, would it?

In effect Joe Wilson blew the whistle on the neo cons and their lying efforts to legitimize their illegal invasion or Iraq. It’s not about the Wilson’s, it’s about high crimes and misdemeanors and the abuse of power at the highest levels. I don’t expect anyone on Truthdig to understand this, because visceral hatred and contempt for people who spoke out against the neo cons or who attempt to tell the truth about 9/11 is the norm. As is hatred of the Democrats. You may call it a fairly trivial incident but that’s like Fox News calling what happened in Abu Ghraib ‘a few bad apples’. And I’m sure you’ll give George W. Bush’s ghost written atrocity plenty of publicity.

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By Lafayette, November 9, 2010 at 5:11 am Link to this comment

“Much Ado About Nothing” by Shakespeare


There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her.

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By bluewombat, November 9, 2010 at 4:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A courageous truth-teller challenges the lies of the authoritarian Bush Regime, something Congressional Democrats, the media, and the courts were unwilling to do.

As payback, his wife’s career as a top-secret CIA NOC spy protecting our national security is treasonously destroyed by a vindictive, bloodsucking creep of a power-mad vice president, whose top assistant is convicted of multiple felonies for his role in this escapade.

And Schickel thinks that’s trivial? What a nitwit.

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