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Roger Moore, McClatchy Newspapers, Published December 24 2010

Stakes high in real-life spy ‘Game’

MOVIE REVIEW

“Fair Game”

In the opening scene of “Fair Game,” Valerie Plame, played with matter-of-fact cunning and uncluttered directness by Naomi Watts, turns around an ugly situation and gets her man when we wonder if he will get her first.

The real stakes in her real world become clear. This isn’t James Bond or Jason Bourne, who leap tall buildings, dodge bullets and sip martinis. An actual CIA agent working in corners of the world where Americans aren’t liked deals with people who could do her harm. She risks her life, and others, to get America the hard intelligence to discern the intentions of our enemies.

And somebody in the Bush White House gave her up. Plame, an undercover agent with an outspoken diplomat husband, was “Fair Game” in the Washington of the run-up to the Iraq war.

Director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”) walks the straight and narrow with this politically charged tale, never going beyond what the courts decided happened when political appointees and their sympathetic journalists broke the law and endangered Plame, her family and her many contacts in the field.

The way Liman avoids bias (not that conservatives won’t scream that, regardless) is by focusing on the personal. “Fair Game” is about a marriage and reputations torn asunder in an effort to make political hay.

The always-intense and left-leaning Sean Penn is a bit too apt to play Joe Wilson, the diplomat who raised a stink about George W. Bush’s claims about Iraqi efforts to acquire nuclear materials.

But Liman’s film (with a script by Jez and John Henry Butterworth) shows Wilson as a somewhat insufferable absolutist, a guy given to insulting dinner guests who don’t have the on-the-ground knowledge of geopolitics that he does.

When the government sends Wilson to Nigeria, a country he’d long been stationed in (sent by Democrats), to track down a rumor about Iraqi nuke shopping, he dug around and disproved it for them. And when George W. Bush ignored and twisted that very report as a justification for invading Iraq, Wilson got on his high horse and told the world. That high horse is what makes Penn so perfect for the part. Who better?

Bush people (David Andrews is Scooter Libby, Adam LeFevre is Karl Rove) move to discredit their critic. And the donnybrook begins, with Wilson struggling to save his reputation even as his wife becomes collateral damage – outed by Libby (on whose orders, we don’t know) to conservative pundit Robert Novak, ending her career. She tries to quiet her husband, but nothing doing.

“They have all the power,” Penn-Wilson shouts. “What do I have? My word.”

The movie has melodramatic moments, as Plame must elude her employers as if they’re “Bourne Identity” villains bent on making her disappear. And did Iraqis actually die because of this leak?

But for every spycraft scene, every illustration of the deadly blowback from the leak that Liman dramatizes, the movie has half a dozen scenes of a delicately balanced home life turned on its head by a government bent on destroying one of its critics. The stalking by the press, the attacks by innuendo and the impotent rage of a husband unable to defend himself or his wife are much more chilling than the film’s moments of fear that someone with a grudge against “the Agency” might show up at their house.

That makes “Fair Game,” as spy thrillers go, more chilling than thrilling. But that’s what makes it easy to relate to. When you’re dealing with the real world and not that of spy novels or James Bond movies, a powerful person taking away your career, your privacy and your safety is as serious as it gets.