Add to the list of retired-secret-agent movies, alongside RED and The Expendables, Doug Liman's potent, sometimes infuriating dramatization of that bit of recent American history known to some as "Plamegate." Come to think of it, if Karl Rove and his minions had had anything to do with this film, RED and The Expendables could both have been appropriate titles. In real life, Rove and company had foreign-service diplomat Joseph Wilson — who called President Bush on his claim that Iraq was buying uranium from Niger — vilified as a traitor. They also dismissed his wife — Valerie Plame, whom they outed as a CIA agent in retribution for her husband's action — as an insignificant agency functionary, a "secretary."
The media pretty much bought it all, so no credit to them that it takes a Hollywood movie to get out another side of the story (and at that, three days after the election). But kudos to Liman and his cast for transforming the kind of political meat and potatoes Americans generally ignore into the kind of engaging entertainment they enjoy. Fair Game might not be all true, but it will stimulate some to question the lies they've been fed.
Liman shatters myths and draws in his audience with the first sequence, in which Plame (Naomi Watts), no shrinking violet, works on a sleazy Kuala Lumpur businessman involved in the nuclear-arms trade. She sets him up so he can be blackmailed for information, and though the operation may not be on the level of Jason Bourne taking on squads of heavily armed troops with his bare hands in Liman's The Bourne Identity, it's not a stenographer taking dictation, either.
Meanwhile, the latter sort of desk-bound espionage is what's being taken seriously back at the White House, which is trying to patch together a convincing case for invading Iraq from discredited dispatches and forged documents. Among these is the infamous report of Iraq's buying yellowcake ore, a crucial component of nuclear weapons, from Niger. Vouched for by Plame, Wilson, a former ambassador to Niger and an African expert, is sent on a CIA mission to confirm this information. He reports it as bogus, so he's surprised to hear the data asserted as fact in President Bush's address to the UN. After "Shock and Awe" has done its worst, Wilson rather anticlimactically writes an explosive op-ed in the New York Times, and the rest is history — for the most part as written by the victors.
The film doesn't disclose anything that anyone reasonably cognizant of current events doesn't already know, but it's one thing to read about the deliberate manufacturing of facts for ideological purposes and another to see the crass, fatuous bureaucratic gears churning it out. Or to note, abstractly, the Republican noise machine's tactics as compared to watching said machine in action. Likewise, the human toll of such ruthlessness comes through as Watts and Penn, bolstered by sharp dialogue, create attractive, smart, sympathetic characters whose careers and marriage are strained to the breaking point but who, in true Capra-esque fashion, adhere to their values and their integrity. The inevitable rousing speeches follow, but until then, this game is played fair.