'Fair Game' Review: Director Doug Liman Makes a Lousy Oliver Stone Movie
That director Doug Liman's "Fair Game" would shamelessly lie on the facts when it came to filming the story of "Plamegate" was never in doubt. Lying left-wing propagandists producing lying left-wing propaganda? Color me shocked. What did surprise me, however, was Liman's decision to push the lies so far as to completely negate the only part of the story that might have actually worked -- the central relationship between former Ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn)and his wife, CIA Operations Officer Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). This lie, which surrounds the infamous Vanity Fair spread, is so audacious and obvious that it destroys any investment one might have in the human drama --which might help to explain the thus far indifferent reception the film's receiving at the box office. Even those looking for big screen affirmation of their Bush Derangement Syndrome can only suspend so much disbelief.
Liman introduces Plame as a Jack Ryanette, a CIA field agent undercover in the big bad Middle East muscling bad guys, recruiting spies, and at the center of much of the activity involving the pre-Iraq War intelligence gathering with respect to Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. Her husband, a former diplomat with extensive experience in Iraq and Africa, runs some sort of international business out of the couple's lovely home with two young children constantly underfoot.
As part of the case for war, the CIA and the White House are both eager to verify a British intelligence report (that the British stand by to this day) that claims Saddam sought the purchase of enriched uranium from the African country of Niger. Because of Wilson's experience and contacts, Plame is asked by her superior to draft something up explaining why her husband would be qualified to go to Niger and report back on the lay of the land. She does, and in 2002 Wilson goes and finds no evidence of Iraqi uranium-shopping. Afterwards, in his State of the Union, President Bush uses those now famous 16 words that seem to contradict Wilson's report and in turn Wilson decides to go public with a New York Times op-ed that essentially claims the president knowingly lied.
According to the film, what follows is that the White house -- specifically Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff Scooter Libby (who has the only memorable scene in the film) and Karl Rove -- set out to destroy Wilson's credibility by leaking to columnist Robert Novak that his CIA Operative wife got him the Niger gig, which effectively blows Plame's cover to everyone from her closest friends to the many field operatives she handles throughout the world. The human toll is both on her marriage and in putting those she's worked with in Iraq in mortal danger.
In the vacuum of a straight-forward film, the first half of "Fair Game" actually works quite well. The various dynamics involving Plame's field operations, the tensions between the White House and the CIA, and Wilson's personal struggle to not feel like a nanny as his wife globe-trots into the center of real-time history makes for a compelling story. Once Plame is outed, though, the whole structure collapses into Lifetime Movie melodrama, speechifying, a mind-numbing amount of exposition, and of course a dizzying array of lies, both big and small.
Rove passes something sinister to Libby...
Liman's first Big Lie is also the most comical. Despite all the sinister White House doings Liman puts on display, it is just a fact that no one at the White House leaked Plame's name to Novak or to anyone else. That information came to the late columnist through Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in the form of offhand gossip. Armitage was not only no fan of the Iraq War, he was frequently and publicly at odds with the Bush White House over it.
Regardless of this well-known fact, at no time does Liman tell his audience this... until after the final fade with a short paragraph that finally identifies the leaker as Armitage and effectively undercuts all the sinister goings on that came before. Imagine "All the President's Men" ending with the acknowledgement that all the president's men had no knowledge of the Watergate cover up. Then, in a laughable attempt to salvage what little is left of the film's credibility, Liman adds a second paragraph informing us that Armitage learned of Plame's identity through a White House memo -- as though that means a goddamn thing.
Liman's second Big Lie is one of omission. It is yet another fact that Wilson's repeated assertion that his wife didn't recommend him for the Niger job is a lie, as were his repeated statements claiming he had thoroughly discredited all claims of Saddam seeking uranium from Niger. If you don't believe me, maybe you'll believe those famous Bush-lovers over at the Washington Post:
Nevertheless, it now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame's CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming -- falsely, as it turned out -- that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials. He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush's closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It's unfortunate that so many people took him seriously.
"Fair Game's" plot might be simplistic and melodramatic, but if Oliver Stone's taught us anything it's that facts don't matter when it comes to telling a compelling story. At its core this is a movie about the relationship between Plame and Wilson. So in order for the film to work, we have to be emotionally invested in these characters, believe in the turmoil they're going through as a couple, and be rooting for them to find a way to stay together. If we don't believe, nothing works, but because Liman just can't stop lying, he destroys this element -- the only one that matters -- by refusing to deal with the Vanity Fair elephant in the room.
The film that will now be known as "The Good Fair Game'"
The signature moment of the this entire non-scandal/story was Wilson and Plame's narcissistic decision to appear (photographs and all) in the January 2004 issue of Vanity Fair. Everyone in the world knows the globe-trotting, undercover, CIA. operative with important ongoing field operations agreed to do this, but in the film when Wilson asks her to, the scene plays out as though this request was the final breaking point in their marriage. She's appalled he would consider such things and soon after she moves out of the house, divorce is in the air, and the elephant looks directly into the camera and says, "Can you believe this shit?"
Then it gets worse...
Plame's entire character arc is based on her coming to the realization that her reluctance to publicly fight back against the White House was wrong and that her husband was right all along. In the film's final reconciliation scene, she comes to this conclusion and makes her teary-eyed confession but only after Libby is indicted (not for leaking Plame's name but for lying to investigators, which he was likely guilty of), which happened in October of 2005, almost two years after the Vanity Fair spread!
No one's liberal enough to sit there and believe that the same woman who we all know posed for Vanity Fair is the same woman we're watching in that scene. And it's at this moment where the lies, big and small, finally overwhelm even the story's artistic integrity and topples it all into a smoldering pile of failure where once a monument to liberal wish-fulfillment proudly stood.
ADDED: Be sure to read the Daily Caller's much more in-depth, wonky, and just plain devastating takedown of "Fair Game's" serial lies.