Fair Game

“Fair Game,” as you may or may not remember, was the title of Valerie Plame’s best seller, which itself was taken from Dick Cheney’s comment about her back when he was Vice President.

To wit: “Valerie Plame is fair game.”

Playing fair, however, was another matter altogether as we see in Doug Limon’s fine new film, starring Naomi Watts as the out-ed CIA agent and Sean Penn as her outspoken husband, Joe Wilson.

In a whopper of an opening scene (about which, I will try to say as little as possible), we are introduced to Plame and her role in the spy game.

There’s a bit of derring-do and then, much like Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha in “Bewitched,” she goes back to being a friendly and efficient wife and mother. Only, it takes considerably more than a twitch of the nose to get done what she does.

In other words, she isn’t just some desk jockey as pieces of the controversy led many of us to believe.

Limon meticulously reconstructs the chain of events that led to a war between the White House and the couple. It rests on the actions of two fictional CIA types — they’re the ones who voice crucial decisions — with Scooter Libby () pretty much taking the fall for everyone, much as happened in real life.

President Bush and Cheney are only seen on newsreel while Karl Rove trots in and out of a few scenes without saying more than several words. Uncharitably, perhaps, Limon has cast a less-attractive, even roly-pol-ier actor as Rove.

Shrewdly, though he hardly ignores the politics, Limon concentrates more on the personal fall-out of this “fair game.”

Plame not only loses her cover; she loses her career and finds herself constantly fielding threats to herself and her family. As Watts plays her (in an Oscar-worthy performance), she would prefer to take a deep breath, make some decisions and fade from the public eye.

Wilson, however, is shown to be a bit of a show-boater. It’s his Bush-baiting Op-Ed piece in the New York Times — about the absence of any real proof that Iraq is building nukes — that prods the White House to close ranks and take action. Against his wife, if that’s the only means possible.

Penn, in a performance that should put him in Oscar’s best supporting race, shows us both Wilson’s integrity and his taste for the spotlight. He’s being contacted by Time! By Newsweek! By Andrea Mitchell! Or so he crows to Plame who looks increasingly angry and panicked each time he does.

Ultimately, the film comes out for speaking out. Democracy is not a free ride, we’re reminded. It takes work and courage and a whole lot more — including making a righteous noise when you think things are rotten in more places than Denmark.

It is, admittedly, a one-sided film. And a curiously almost old-fashioned one in that it recalls 1976’s “All the President’s Men.”

But here, there is no money shot; no glimpse of a defeated President.

The victory, I guess, is that Limon gets to tell the story of two citizens  who are apparently done wrong. A case of insider politics more than anything else.

“Fair Game” is smart, beautifully-acted,  and unapologetic. And even if you don’t buy the Plame/Wilson version, it makes you wonder what really did go on behind closed doors just a few years ago.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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