Of all the events that marked the Bush II presidency, the one that holds the most fascination for me is the Valerie Plame story. The Plame Affair (or ‘Plamegate’ as some have called the event) presented the Bush Administration with its toughest PR challenge. More so than 9/11 and Katrina because the target wasn’t some outside evil entity or a natural disaster, but rather a member of the president’s inner circle. The scandal involved the CIA, the Iraq War, and White House Administration officials. With a story like this, what’s not to like? The Plame Affair had the perfect ingredients to make the perfect Hollywood political thriller. And Doug Liman did just that with FAIR GAME, a sure to be controversial adaptation of Joe Wilson’s book “The Politics of Truth” and Valerie Plame’s book “Fair Game.”

For those who generally don’t follow the news, The Plame Affair concerned the outing of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame Wilson (Naomi Watts), allegedly by members of President Bush’s administration to get back at a co-op editorial piece that Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) wrote for The New York Times (“What I Didn’t Find in Africa”). Back in 2002-2003, the CIA was attempting to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction being developed by Saddam Hussein in order to help the White House build up a case to invade Iraq. Valerie Plame was a covert agent for the CIA at the time and the CIA had requested her to ask her husband whether he would be willing to make a trip to Niger to find out whether Iraq was in the process of buying uranium from Niger for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons. Joe Wilson went to the country and concluded that no such sale had transpired between Iraq and Niger and reported as such to the CIA. In 2003, however, President Bush declared in his State of the Union Address that Saddam Hussein sought to purchase uranium from Niger. The White House allegedly obtained this information from Joe Wilson’s report to the CIA. When Joe Wilson discovered this, he wrote a co-op piece for The New York Times denying that he found any transactions between Iraq and Niger for the sale of uranium. As the story goes, the White House, namely Vice-President Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby, were pissed about Wilson’s New York Times article and decided to publicly leak the identity of Wilson’s wife, Valerie, as a CIA agent. From there, the Wilsons’ life turned topsy-turvy as they fought various allegations made about them in the media.

I followed the Plame Affair from the very beginning, starting with Joe Wilson’s op-ed piece in The New York Times. Based on my reading of the events, I believed the Wilsons’ version of events. After all, what reason would the Wilsons have to seek the public spotlight other than to clear their names? Its been clearly established that Valerie Plame was a senior covert agent who was highly competent in her job and well respected among her peers. In fact, on the eve of the U.S. attack upon Iraq, Plame was leading a number of covert teams around the world on various missions. Combined with the fact that a CIA agent’s effectiveness and career depends on discreetness, there is no reason for Plame to have wanted to seek publicity. As for her husband, Joe Wilson had his own career and was in the process of creating a new business. The kind of publicity he eventually received is not the kind of spotlight that would normally benefit his line of work. Clearly, Joe Wilson felt that President Bush misconstrued the information Wilson provided the CIA and he wanted to set the record straight.

The question isn’t whether the Wilsons were publicity hounds who had some sort of liberal agenda against the White House in going public with their grievance. The real question is who exactly leaked Valerie Plame’s identity to the media and why? FAIR GAME presents an explanation, which is not a wholly conceded truth. According to the film, Scooter Libby was sent to the CIA to find evidence that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. He did not want to hear that there was no evidence. Eventually, he found someone who was willing to provide him with some evidence, regardless of its veracity. When Joe Wilson decided to throw a monkey wrench into the White House’s neatly packaged explanation to the public as to why it was going to invade Iraq, Scooter Libby decided to seek retribution against the Wilsons. The film also names Robert Novak and Karl Rove, but considering that Scooter worked for Vice President Cheney, it was interesting that the film largely ignores Cheney as having any involvement in this matter. It also ignores Richard Armitage’s large role in the leak, which I found to be even more perplexing.

As to the merits of the film itself, FAIR GAME may disappoint those who expect a political thriller along the lines of SYRIANA, MUNICH, or any of the Jack Ryan movies. The film is based on true events and such events, even those that involve war and secret agents, are not typically full of suspenseful action. The suspense lies in the secrecy, backstabbing, and revelations made by and between characters, each of whom has a personal and political agenda. The appeal of FAIR GAME was seeing how the Wilsons controlled the damage being wrought upon their lives and how they managed to take on the big bad government establishment. Doug Liman, the director, is suited to take on this kind of material. Previously, Liman directed THE BOURNE IDENTITY and MR. AND MRS. SMITH. Liman is also not a stranger to D.C. politics. His father, Arthur L. Liman, was chief counsel for the Senate Iran-Contra hearings. Based on FAIR GAME and his past films, I hope to see Liman stick with this genre.

As much as I enjoyed Liman’s work on FAIR GAME, what annoyed the SHIT out of me was his decision to employ a handheld camera style. Many of the scenes contained a lot of unnecessary shaky cam and one scene in particular was shot with the camera constantly panning back and forth across a roomful of people sitting around a table. The camerawork brought too much attention to itself and it distracted from what was going on screen. I suspect Liman’s decision was based on a concern that the story’s lack of action would need to be counteracted with a more kinetic style of shooting. I disagree. Watch THE INSIDER for an example of an engaging story that contained no action and where the camera did not move all over the place.

FAIR GAME is helped immensely by the powerhouse performances given by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. This should come as no surprise considering both actors rarely, if ever, deliver sub-par performances. Penn seems to have been particularly ready to play Joe Wilson. Both individuals seem to share a similar political ideology so in watching Penn, you at times feel like you’re really just watching Penn be himself. Regardless, Penn gives us a fiery and impassioned performance that deserves a lot of award attention. I think Watts had a tougher role to play because she not only has to convince the audience that she is an intelligent and saavy CIA agent, but she is also a caring mother and a supportive wife. She has to both play a domesticated woman and a hard-working, career woman who travels throughout the world’s hot spots. Watts pulls it off and she establishes her character from the very beginning during an overseas assignment. Both actors had a tough job in playing popular figures who remain in the public’s collective consciousness, but they pull it off beautifully.

Not everyone is going to buy into FAIR GAME, especially conservatives. I have already heard cries that the movie leans far too much to the left and that it is nothing more than liberal propaganda. I did not watch this film so that I can learn about what really happened. I saw it because it is one of the most fascinating news events of the past decade and I was curious to see how it would be handled as a film and by a filmmaker and cast that I respect. I was not disappointed by the end result and regardless of your political persuasions, I think FAIR GAME is a film worth seeing.