Bush cannot even bring himself to acknowledge that Valerie was what is now universally known: a covert CIA operations officer. Bush’s characterization is a pathetic euphemism: “Then it came out that Wilson’s wife’s position was classified.”
—Joe Wilson, “George Bush’s Deception Points”
Late in Fair Game, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) faces a daunting set of crises. She’s lost her job, her friends feel betrayed, and she’s fighting with her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn). And so she does what so many women in such situations in the movies do: she goes home, that is, to her parents’. Here, predictably, her mother Diane (Polly Holliday) looks after her two young grandchildren, while Valerie’s father follows her into the backyard. They try not to look at each other as she announces, “I think my marriage is over, dad.”
Here it’s enormously helpful that her dad is played by Sam Shepard, because anyone else uttering his lines would be hard-pressed to seem convincing. But when he says he’s spent 25 years in the Air Force, well, you kind of believe him, since he’s been Chuck Yeager, and when he complains that what the Bush administration has done—to her family and the U.S. and Iraq too—“was wrong, Val, it’s just plain wrong,” you believe that too. And so she resolves not to be angry at Joe anymore, but instead to join his fight against the administration, as unwinnable as it may seem. (This fictionalized film is now part of that fight, and the real life Plame and Wilson have been key figures in its promotion.)
While this plot turn is forgone, as Doug Liman’s movie is based on the real life story of administration’s efforts to quash Joe Wilson’s allegation that it lied about Saddam’s weapons program, it has a few ramifications for Fair Game. For one thing, it means that Shepard’s work is done here, his remarkably weathered face and heroic bearing cast as a receding memory—of a time when the U.S. government’s conniving was less visible and fatuous. In Shepard’s absence, it’s Penn’s Wilson who embodies—in Valerie’s eyes, and so yours—a resilient and admirable faith that there is a difference between right and wrong, that ideology doesn’t trump morality.
Valerie comes to see this, and so forgives her husband for writing “What I Didn’t Find in Africa”, the angry op-ed piece published in the New York Times on 6 July 2003. Within the film’s logic, Plame now realizes that the chaos followed that publication was not in fact born in that moment, but instead had long permeated the structure of the CIA and other government agencies, as well as the media and political cultures that supported a war against Iraq, whether overtly or tacitly. Her revelation is represented in an emotionally affecting scene: the couple comes together in a darkened hallway in their home, literally between rooms, in a space that indicates their monumental transition. “I don’t care what they say about us,” she insists, “They do not get to take my marriage.” To reinforce why that marriage is so precious, she tells Joe, their faces close, “You did good.”
This good is in contrast, of course, to the enormous bad done by the government she so recently served. Fair Game underscores that effect not only in the trauma brought on Plame and Wilson, but also in scenes set in Iraq, where Iraqis are menaced not by collapsing relationships but the dire circumstances of “shock and awe.” Here the primary figure is Hammad (Khaled Nabawy), a scientist recruited to help support a case against the Bushies’ increasingly apparent lies. Valerie is instrumental in soliciting his information, traveling to Cleveland to persuade his sister, Dr. Zahraa (Liraz Charhi), to meet with him in Baghdad and bring back the data. When she pressures the doctor by citing civic and moral obligations, it appears that Valerie believes what she says, that perhaps she has even seen her work for the CIA, over all this time, as a function of that belief. You might also wonder, however, how much experience and inside knowledge she also represses in order to believe this: it is the CIA, after all. Shortly after this tense exchange, Valerie, back in the States, loses her position and so, her ability to remove Hammad from the war-zone-to-be. And it’s that loss, that failure, that suddenly exposes to her the CIA’s hypocrisy and deceit.
This point is pounded a bit by scenes of the Iraq war. When it begins, a moment introduced by the familiar footage of bombs over Baghdad on CNN, Hammad and his own family serve as briefly sketched emblems of its devastation. His children cry, the house shakes. “Your American friends are calling you right now,” sneers a secret policeman come to harass him. Soon literally standing against a backdrop of explosions, Hammad is the representative victim of this onslaught of U.S. hubris and firepower.
Hammad’s fate is not detailed on screen. Instead, you see Valerie’s upset, her efforts to “get the family out,” as she pleads with her former boss (Noah Emmerich). “We don’t have the resources,” he intones, dismissing her concern that, “I gave my word.” Obviously, anyone’s word means little in the constantly shifting moral landscape ordained by the United States. This tragedy looms over the scene when Wilson is advised not to make a fuss about the “16 words” in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address. Repeatedly, the film uses TV images to construct its drama (buildings blow up in Baghdad, Bush says, “Bring ‘em on”), relying on Joe’s reactions, assuming they stand in for yours.
This strategy is less than effective in the end, despite Penn’s engaging performance, for it reiterates the problem Fair Game purports to expose. Again, slick media imagery shapes your thinking.