In 2002, the CIA sends former ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) to Niger to investigate a possible sale of uranium to Saddam Hussein. Wilson reports that the sale didn't happen, and publicly protests when President Bush persists in using it as a justification for his Iraq War. Then news leak outs Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), is a CIA agent.
Fair Game — blandly using a title from half a dozen other movies — is about the odd affair of The Ambassador, his wife The Spy and The White House Fixer. Given that the spat was mostly expressed in newspaper op-ed pieces and registered as a footnote to the greater farce of the search for non-existent weapons of mass destruction, Liman and screenwriter Jez Butterworth have to explain abstruse circumstances and ground them in human drama. Valerie (Naomi Watts) is seen in the field, making and manipulating contacts, then as a working suburban wife and mother with a distinguished but at-a-loose-end husband (Sean Penn). When her real job is publicly revealed, it causes chaos in her social and married life… but there are dark hints of a body-count around the world as her cases are dropped or mishandled (a list of Iraqi nuclear scientists she hopes to recruit is passed on to Mossad, who assassinate them instead).
It’s a showcase for star actors. Watts does well as essentially a realistic version of Evelyn Salt, coolly handling shady deals but also hosting suburban dinner parties properly. Penn (a vocal opponent of the war) gives Wilson a slight blowhard air which makes him interestingly unsympathetic, even when he’s in the right. If the ‘villains’ — David Andrews’ pursed-lips Scooter Libby — come across as cartoons, then they did in news footage too. The problem is, when global crisis puts stress on the couple’s marriage, it’s hard to care about their arguments while people get killed (or forgotten) offscreen.
In the filmography of liberal-skewing, Bush-era true stories, this is a measured, persuasive item. It's questionable whether there's an appetite for hanging out more of the last decade's dirty laundry to dry in the multiplexes or 'For Your Consideration' awards bids, though.
Reviewed by Kim Newman