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Forget about James Bond. The last thing a spy really wants is to be noticed. Take it from Valerie Plame.
Plame's work was far removed from Bond's world of Aston Martins and glamorous casinos. As an undercover operative for the CIA, Plame's job looked something like a high-level sales position: Instead of pushing media buys or seven-figure contracts, she marketed American sovereignty and security. Instead of money, she collected secrets. She'd cultivate agents through promises, exhortations and even the occasional threat or two, earning their trust (or, at least, co-opting their assistance) through discretion and subtlety. And through it all, no one outside of her husband and parents knew what she really did for a living.
Until someone blew her cover in the pages of The Washington Post.
Fair Game, based on the book written by Valerie Plame, chronicles one of the most controversial storylines of the George W. Bush presidency: the lead up to the Iraq War. The film suggests that (among other things) some of its members purposefully outed Plame to exact revenge on her outspoken husband, Joe Wilson—who just a week before had written an op-ed in The New York Times critiquing the government's rationale for going to war.
It also presents a more human drama by examining what happens to a woman's life and loves when she loses everything in a single day.
Valerie and Joe care deeply about each other, and the film's crux revolves around how Joe's op-ed and Valerie's subsequent outing affect their relationship. Valerie believes that if her headstrong husband had just kept his mouth shut, she'd still have a job and they'd have held on to their "normal" life. But Joe, believing the government misled the American people, feels it's his responsibility to speak up regardless of the cost—and he can't understand why Valerie refuses to publicly support him.
But covert agents are trained to keep quiet, and Valerie still feels a sense of loyalty to both the CIA and the government, never mind her new status as pariah.
Do you see the positives in all of that conflict? Joe, in writing his op-ed and subsequently granting a number of related interviews, is trying to hold the government accountable—a good thing in and of itself (even if, as he admits later, his motives were mixed). Valerie, meanwhile, wants to continue to do her duty as best as she can under terribly trying circumstances—also a good thing. But doing good can sometimes crack the very foundation it rests on. And Valerie and Joe nearly split under the strain.
Then they regroup and rebound. The film ends with Valerie reaffirming her love for Joe: The government can take away her job, her safety and her standing, she tells him, "but they do not get to take my marriage."
A reverent invocation of Allah contrasts brash comments made about Muslim terrorists "sweating" and "saying prayers" in an airplane. We see iconic Muslim images in Islamic countries.
When Joe returns from Niger—a fact-finding trip he made at the behest of the CIA—he tells Valerie that, in lieu of payment, "we double-O's prefer gratuitous sex."
"Maybe I can do something about that," Valerie says, and the two of them passionately kiss.
A reporter later asks Valerie whether she had "lovers all over the world," and a critic accuses her of being a "Commie whore." A potential source spends significant time leering at Valerie, later making a pass at her in a parked car.
An Iraqi scientist and his son get caught in a gun battle. Though both make it out of the situation safely, we later see them waiting for American rescuers to pick them up—help that never arrives because of Plame's outing. The audience never learns what becomes of them.
Both Joe and Valerie are verbally abused, and Valerie says that she receives death threats every day. She returns from a mission with bruises on her arm. A reporter asks her whether she owns a gun and has "killed people." A governmental official makes a reference to a mushroom cloud.
Crude or Profane Language
Two f-words and two acronyms that refer to the f-word. About 10 s-words. A smattering of milder profanities includes "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "h‑‑‑." God's name is misused nearly 10 times, at least once paired with "d‑‑n." Joe calls a dinner guest a "racist p‑‑‑y."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters quaff wine and mixed drinks. They smoke cigars and cigarettes. Valerie surmises that one of her dinner guests was drunk.
Other Negative Elements
Government officials embody a bevy of bad behavior. One CIA higher-up refuses to help Valerie conclude her operations, meaning several of her sources are left stranded without help. Bureaucrats cherry-pick information to create a case for going to war.
Before Joe and Valerie patch things up, they spend quite a bit of the film shouting at each other.
"How do you do it?" a woman asks Valerie. "Lie to someone to their face?"
"You have to know why you're lying," Valerie answers, "and never forget the truth."
Fair Game treats lies as if they're big game. And it's one of the movie's little ironies that Valerie—a woman whose whole career has been predicated on lying—winds up being its most truthful character.
The film suggests that in the early 2000s the U.S. government lies because it willfully forgets the truth. Influential members of the administration had a hypothesis, it maintains, that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program. And so they solicited data that would support their hypothesis, manipulating it to serve their aims. Truth becomes squishy in such an environment, easily molded to fit the appropriate narrative.
One might, of course, argue that this movie is guilty of the same crime: picking facts as its makers see fit to create a compelling, persuasive story.
That seems to lead directly to a bitter partisan discussion of politics. But in fact the film wields a weightier sledge than that: Truth can feel squishy at times, it teaches us, and we can all be guilty of cherry-picking data. Like Joe, we can lie to even ourselves about our motives sometimes. But that doesn't negate the fact that the truth—the real truth—really is out there, and it's important we do whatever we can to find it.
At one point Joe lectures his college students about the duties a democracy places on its people. The duty to think. The duty to act. The duty to make yourself heard. It's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington territory, and it's inspiring. It's not nearly so inspiring, though, as Valerie and Joe's return to their marriage in the teeth of a fierce gale. The truth will set you free, Jesus tells us in John 8:32, but it's love that is His greatest commandment. Valerie and Joe both learn that, at least onscreen.
Truth is, you don't need to watch Fair Game to learn their lessons. Though a competent and well-acted piece of cinema, the film slogs through a bit of foul content and, in the end, lurches to an unsatisfying ending—not unlike the real Valerie Plame story. Plame headlines dominated the media for months—only to eventually peeter out and disappear without any sense of closure. And Fair Game spends too much of its time pointing fingers to do an adequate job of connecting dots.
Truth and love, it seems, are hard to find in this fallen world of ours. Even in—or, perhaps, especially in—the movies.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame; Sean Penn as Joseph Wilson; Michael Kelly as Jack; Noah Emmerich as Bill; David Andrews as Scooter Libby
November 5, 2010
March 29, 2011