Few things are less inherently cinematic than a press leak, yet Hollywood seems determined to create high drama from the Valerie Plame affair. Two years ago, Rod Lurie’s barely released Nothing but the Truth depicted the ordeal of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent three months in jail for refusing to divulge the identity of the person who informed her that Plame worked for the CIA. Undeterred by that film’s failure, Doug Liman (Go, The Bourne Identity) now returns to the saga with Fair Game, which puts Plame and her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, front and center. Despite Liman’s best efforts, however, the fact remains: It’s nearly impossible to create arresting moving images about a bunch of people who are terribly upset about who said what to whom and how that wound up being published.
In case you’ve forgotten, Wilson (Sean Penn), at the suggestion of Plame (Naomi Watts), was sent in 2002 on a fact-finding mission to Niger to investigate the possibility that the country was selling yellowcake uranium to Iraq. He concluded that it wasn’t, submitted a report to that effect and later, following the U.S. invasion, wrote several op-ed pieces alleging that the George W. Bush administration had deliberately fabricated its story about Iraq’s WMD program. In retaliation, the White House leaked Plame’s identity to at least two journalists, one of whom immediately blew her cover, thereby ending her career and compromising multiple ongoing operations.
Sounds thrilling, no? To his credit, Liman does an amazingly zingy job of laying out this convoluted story, so that the first half plays like an especially sober episode of The West Wing. Nonetheless, the movie’s key events mostly take place offscreen, by necessity, and its latter half turns both Plame and (especially) Wilson into Great American Martyrs, which means that fast-paced Beltway machinations are replaced by lofty speeches exhorting us to “demand that truth!” Penn becomes insufferable—never give that guy a soapbox—and Watts, while adequate, is no match for Vera Farmiga’s awesomely blunt turn as Plame in Nothing but the Truth—which has problems of its own. Not every big scandal should be a movie, people.