The Spy Who Was Put In The Cold

The Spy Who Was Put In The Cold

Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Release date: (UK): March 11th, 2011
Certificate (UK): 12
Running time: 103 minutes

Director: Doug Liman

Cast: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Ty Burrell, David Andrews


If the story of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson wouldn’t have been made public with a great deal of detail and media uproar, Fair Game and the underlying events would most likely be one of the tales attributed to conspiracy theorists.

On the surface, it’s about a government desperate to go to war no matter the cost, and fiercely looking for reasons to invade a foreign country. In case there are no such reasons, it comes down to ‘If you can’t make it, fake it’. Opponents are being silenced or denounced, and people who die in the wake of the political forgery are collateral damage.

Fair GameAs such it’s an ancient story, something that has happened again and again, and was told many times over the millennia. But those stories seldom tell of the disaster that unfolds in the personal lives of the discarded and outlawed, the good guys who are rendered bad, so to speak. Fair Game turns the table and shows how a family gets pushed to the brink of destruction.

The film is based on books by Joe Wilson (The Politics Of Truth) and Valerie Plame Wilson (Fair Game) and naturally depicts the events from their perspective. But the fictionalisation appears stunningly real. The filmmakers used the actual names of everyone involved, right down to the White House. Obviously, the narrative can’t reflect an absolute truth, the more so as the reality of the back story is far too complex, and also too fresh in public memory.

From the production notes:

“In order to tell this complex story in a two-hour move and to make up for the lack of certain information that would never be released publicly, the [writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth] condensed time, fictionalised certain events, and created composite characters.”

However, according to producer Bill Pohlad there was no intent to make Fair Game a purely historical document to begin with:

“It is an emotional portrait of two extraordinarily brave and determined people caught up in the maelstrom of history and of a marriage that survived the ultimate test.”

In the early 2000s, the US administration received reports that the African country Niger may have sold uranium to Iraq. CIA operative Plame Fair Gamerecommends her husband, a former US Ambassador to Niger, should investigate the matter. However, Joe Wilson doesn’t find any evidence, in fact he established a deal of this kind would have been impossible.

The United States went to war anyway, not only ignoring Wilson’s report but also basing the attack on the unproven nuclear threat. Wilson was outraged and published an article in the New York Times, titled What I Didn’t Find in Africa.

Later the Chicago Sun-Times reported Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA agent, effectively denouncing Wilson and making the family “fair game”. Eventually a White House aide was put on trial for leaking this information but the sentence was swiftly commuted by president Bush.

At the time when Plame was outed by her own people — in the middle of the Iraq war — she and her husband were a happy family with two little children. The CIA operative Fair Game juggled her duties as a mother and as a handler of secret informant networks in the Middle East, including Baghdad. No one on the outside knew about her real job.

Fair Game tells how the family copes with the firestorm that breaks loose on them, and how they try to hang in despite death threats and growing isolation. Valerie Plame’s desperate fight to save her informants is particularly heart-rending; there are reports that many of her contacts were killed after Plame’s cover was blown.

Naomi Watts and Sean Penn portray the marriage extremely captivating, with much emotion but down-to-earth. It’s disturbing to see how the politics of war put an unbearable weight on Plame and Wilson personally, and their relationship.

Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, 2002) tells the story in a way that makes Fair Game neither an anti-war nor a mere spy movie, but an evocative Fair Gameportrait of a society at war – also with itself.

It’s admirable how the film steers clear off interpretation and judgement, and rather delivers a credible David vs. Goliath story that even non-political audiences can connect with.

Visually, the film reflects the sometimes difficult shooting conditions, especially in the Middle East. Liman says:

“We were the first American film company ever to shoot a non-documentary feature in Baghdad. It was nerve-wracking, but working in such a volatile, turbulent location was essential to the nature of the film.”

Despite its immediacy, the cinematography hardly ever loses focus or indulges in a pretentious documentary style. The picture is serving the story without giving up the personal perspective.

Fair Game is an extraordinary movie as it dares to be bold, and raises both emotional and very rational questions that are more relevant than ever. What people can and will do against the abuse of power is the obvious point of the film, but I think first of all it’s about the use of a healthy common sense — and withstanding the manipulative power of opinion-makers.

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