Fair Game (Blu-ray)
Fair Game is the story of Valerie Plame, the former covert CIA operative “outed” by columnist Robert Novak. The resulting scandal ultimately led to the conviction of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, for obstruction of justice and other charges. Based on books by both Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson, and directed by Doug Liman, who created the Bourne franchise, the film is tautly balanced between spy film, political thriller and marital drama. It’s also classical in its approach to portraying history, because the Plame scandal (or “Plamegate”) was one of many ingredients in the witches’ brew of political conflict over the war in Iraq. Thus, the film presents world events from the point of view of specific individuals who will, in short order, become footnotes to history, but, at a critical juncture, are in just the right place to experience momentous occurrences as personal cataclysms. Naomi Watts is outstanding as Plame, and Sean Penn is every bit her match as Wilson in an honest and often less than flattering portrait.
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Film Length: 108 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1; Spanish DD 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25 GB*
Theatrical Release Date: Nov. 5, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: Mar. 29, 2011
*The disc jacket states “dual layer”, but the disc is a BD-25.
If the names “Plame” and “Wilson” are at all familiar, then you probably recall the basics of Fair Game’s story. Plame was a career CIA employee, whose job was known outside the agency only to her husband and parents. She specialized in tracking weapons of mass destruction.
On July 14, 2003, Plame’s identity was disclosed by syndicated Washington Post columnist Robert Novak. Novak was responding to arguments by Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson, in the New York Times a week earlier that the intelligence on which the U.S. had gone to war in Iraq had been manipulated. Wilson, a recently retired career diplomat, had traveled to the African nation of Niger in February 2002 at the request of the CIA to investigate reports that Iraq had purchased large quantities of processed uranium, known as “yellowcake”. Having spent substantial time as a U.S. official in both Africa and Iraq, Wilson concluded after a lengthy inquiry that the reports were unfounded, and he so reported when he returned to Washington. He was therefore surprised to hear President Bush declare, in the 2003 State of the Union Address, that “[t]he British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”. In his Times editorial, Wilson posed the question of whether his findings had simply been ignored.
Plame’s career as a CIA officer was ended when her name became public knowledge. Plame and Wilson believed that the timing of Novak’s column was not a coincidence. By the summer of 2003, the failure to find even the most rudimentary nuclear weapons program or, indeed, any WMDs in Iraq had become both a PR and a political problem for the administration. The Wilsons saw Novak’s column as a warning to anyone who dared question the decision to go to war that dire consequences would follow. They were (and remain) certain that Plame’s “outing” was engineered at the highest levels of government. In Fair Game, we see the issue being discussed, but only indirectly, between Scooter Libby (David Andrews) and Karl Rove (Adam LeFevre) after the President’s press secretary (Geoffrey Cantor) suffers an embarrassing grilling from reporters about Wilson’s New York Times column. But the film stops short of actually making either of these men the leakers, because, as disclosed in the end titles, Richard Armitage, a deputy secretary of state, ultimately admitted to being Novak’s source (a fact confirmed by Novak).
Fair Game takes this story out of the newsroom and makes it personal and immediate. As Plame, Naomi Watts goes about the business of gathering intelligence with professionalism, focus and intensity. She seeks out sources at home and in the Middle East, impersonating whomever she has to be to get close to the potential “asset”. Once in contact, she uses deception, enticement, intimidation – every psychological weapon at hand to obtain the asset’s cooperation. The scenes in which she persuades an Iraqi immigrant, a doctor (Liraz Charhi), to return to Baghdad to obtain information from her brother, a scientist in the nuclear program, are tense and harrowing, because Plame knows she’s putting the woman at mortal risk, and does it anyway.
At the end of each mission, Plame goes home to her husband and children and pretends to be an ordinary working mom. She’s in venture capital, she tells their friends, played by an ensemble of reliable character actors that includes Tom McCarthy, Jessica Hecht, Norbert Leo Butz and Brooke Smith. At work, she sits in unglamorous cubicles, offices and conference rooms (entirely authentic, according to the real Valerie Plame’s commentary), poring through files, peering at aerial photographs or debating the potential use of aluminum tubing acquired by Saddam Hussein. The key to lying effectively, Plame tells the Iraqi doctor, is knowing what’s truly important. Plame does, or at least she thinks so.
When Plame’s cover is blown, she watches helplessly in horror and disbelief as her former colleagues turn their backs (it’s the real-world version of being “disavowed”). Then the media commentariat begins churning out nonsense, and the death threats start arriving from zealots and nut jobs. Eventually she loses every bearing on which she’s relied and has to seek guidance from the one person who has clearly been the polestar of her life: her father, a retired air force lieutenant colonel played by Sam Shepard, who seems to have become the go-to actor for all sorts of American fathers. (Polly Holliday plays her mother in a small but sharply drawn role.)
By this point in Fair Game, the Wilson marriage has come apart. Watts and Penn so convincingly chart its disintegration under the barrage of exterior assaults and interior recriminations that the viewer feels like a domestic spy. Penn has the less appealing role here, because Wilson is the less sympathetic character, and Penn is too truthful an actor to disguise his flaws. An experienced and accomplished man who had personally faced off with Saddam and been hailed as an American hero by the first President Bush, Wilson has a patrician arrogance about him that Penn conveys perfectly, whether during dinner scenes with friends or while delivering his Niger report to impassive CIA officers over Chinese food in his dining room. Obviously used to deference, Wilson can be something of a blowhard. He clearly expects his report to be taken as the last word on the subject and is unwilling accept a role as (in his wife’s phrase) a small cog in the intelligence machine.
When no WMDs are found in Iraq, Penn shows you Wilson’s slow burn until he explodes in his Times editorial, heedless of the risk to which he’s exposing his wife and family by publicly calling out not just the entire executive branch, but all of its supporters as well. After the Novak column appears, Wilson goes on the attack, talking to every reporter, appearing on every news show, still behaving as if the controversy were about him. Meanwhile, his wife is being investigated by her own agency and frozen out by her former colleagues. Only gradually does Wilson begin to understand that he isn’t primarily the one at risk, but by then his wife has taken their children and left for her parents’ home. Only at that point, when Wilson begins to fall apart, does he start to become likeable. And only at that point do husband and wife finally begin communicating for real.
The film’s conclusion intercuts scenes of Wilson giving a classroom lecture with Plame arriving on Capitol Hill to testify. Wilson’s lecture dominates the soundtrack, and it’s based on actual presentations. If you just listen to the words, it might appear that the film is leaving you with the standard “Mr. Smith” message about speaking truth to power. But film is a visual medium, and Liman is too smart a director to waste its potential. In contrast to the sparse gathering Wilson attracted for a lecture early in the film, the enthusiastic audience he’s addressing at the end fills every seat in a huge auditorium. The image conveys more than anything Wilson says. An informal coalition of politicians and pundits may have put Wilson and Plame through the wringer, but they also made them celebrities, and that’s a risky strategy if you’re trying to marginalize someone.
In a line which the real Wilson uses frequently, he asks the audience whether anyone can remember the sixteen words in the 2003 State of the Union that he says “led us to war”. It’s an obvious exaggeration, but no one can remember anything about that very important speech from January 2003. Then Wilson asks who knows his wife’s name, and the entire audience raises their hands and calls out “Valerie Plame”. That allows Wilson to ask the key question: How did it happen that they know the name of a covert CIA operative more readily than they know about a discredited claim of a uranium sale that was presented to Congress by the President as a ground for war? How did Valerie Plame become “fair game” while everyone forgot about cherrypicked intelligence?
It’s still a good question.
Fair Game was shot with the Red One digital camera, producing a clear, detailed image with colors that are just slightly over-saturated. Most scenes are brightly, even harshly lit, as if to emphasize that everything is out in the open, and concealment is a precarious act of will power and constant vigilance. Black levels are excellent, and the color pallette generally tends toward cool blues, because there’s little warmth in either the intelligence community or the corridors of power. As noted in my review of Winter’s Bone, images captured by the Red One camera compress efficiently, and given the disc’s lack of major extras, the absence of any digital artifacts or evidence of noise reduction is unsurprising.
Presented in DTS lossless, Fair Game’s soundtrack is active and immersive without being action-movie aggressive. Locations such as restaurants and offices have low-level noises (dishes clattering, keyboards clacking) placed discreetly in the surrounds to give a sense of the environment. More exotic locales, such as pre-war Baghdad, have distant sounds of crowds vehicles and markets, and scenes during the coalition bombardment are marked by an audio assault that is all the more shocking for its contrast with the relatively quiet majority of the film. Dialogue is always clear and well-recorded. The forceful score was contributed by Liman’s frequent collaborator, John Powell, who scored all three Bourne films, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Jumper.
Commentary by Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson. Anyone expecting heated rhetoric will be disappointed. For one thing, the Wilsons have obviously moved on with their lives, having relocated to Santa Fe (as noted at the end of the film) and placed the era depicted in the film firmly behind them. The conviction of Scooter Libby seems to have provided a sense of closure. Even if, as Wilson’s character says in the film, Libby was only “taking the fall” for others, the special prosecutor’s actions provided some measure of accountability and vindication.
But a more basic reason for the Wilsons’ reserve is the sheer oddity of watching themselves being portrayed on-screen by actors, in this instance very fine actors. Anyone who has been married for a long time will be amused at the way Wilson and Plame keep asking each other whether they’re really like that. (Wilson asks it a lot more than Plame.) The answer is almost always “yes”, because both Watts and Penn thoroughly prepared for their roles. Every so often, the Wilsons will agree that a particular phrase in the script is something they wouldn’t say, but in general their praise for the film’s authenticity is high. (Plame says that the scene where she introduces Wilson to be interviewed for the fact-finding trip to Niger is extremely accurate.)
The novelty of watching their story may cause the Wilsons to stop talking too often at the outset, but by the end they’re talking steadily, and it’s particularly interesting to compare their vocal cadences to the performances by Watts and Penn. (Plame appears in the film over the closing credits, but she was testifying before Congress and her tone wasn’t conversational.)
Trailers. The features menu contains no trailers. At startup the disc plays trailers for Source Code and The Beaver. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button.
A famous maxim attributed to many historical figures (and ultimately traced to an obscure policeman during the French Revolution) holds: “That is worse than a crime; it is a mistake.” Whoever made the decision to “out” Valerie Plame as a covert CIA employee, whether it was Scooter Libby, Robert Novak or someone else, should have considered the principle. The immediate goal may have been to “change the story” from Joe Wilson’s accusations, but the changers forgot an important detail: The story is always changing. Whether one regards the media as liberal, conservative, incompetent or captive to the government, they are still, first and foremost, media, and they’re always desperate for new product. This month’s hero of the hour is next month’s man in the dock, which is why the same reporters that were happy to crucify Plame and Wilson eagerly turned on Libby when the opportunity presented itself.
Change the story, but don’t create martyrs. Otherwise, you’re liable to be confronted one day by your victims backed by reporters, congressional committees, special prosecutors and, if you’re really unlucky, a talented film director, all pointing fingers and calling out, “J’accuse!”
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Acoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub