It’s premature to say so, of course, especially given the limited number of first-run films I actually see, but for my money, Fair Game is the film of the year. David Denby cynically downgrades it with faint praise, relegating it to the category of last year’s kvetch, as if there were an expiration date on injustice and malfeasance. This in itself is such a dismayingly cynical act of bad faith it makes you wonder who Karl Rove hasn’t gotten to. But the sense of shame and the hazards of moral integrity that drive this film are undeniably powerful, making it every bit as relevant as when Plamegate was unfolding.
Naomi Watts brings a clarity, an unfussiness, and a lack of vanity to this role that is completely focused and riveting to watch, while Sean Penn’s performance is both dynamic and subtle. Watts combines a wary intelligence with a sense of commitment and risk-taking that is deeply compelling. As Valerie Plame Wilson, she amplifies the role she played in 2009’s The International (see my post on it: here), here playing a dedicated professional forced by betrayal to become an unwilling crusader against the very service she’s devoted her life to. The demands of this complex role ask her to display a charged sense of duty with a vulnerability that is both harrowing and moving.
The film’s denouement, with its vindication of Plame and Joe Wilson’s speech to college students, reminding them that we live in a republic, is rousing, gratifying stuff, to be sure, but while the Wilson’s themselves come through their ordeal, the larger scandal of how the casus belli for Iraq was manufactured and sold still looms, unresolved, already a part of the collective cultural amnesia surrounding the Bush Administration.
Nevertheless, Fair Game is a potent revisitation of those crimes. Doug Liman’s direction and pacing are sterling and the script, by the Butterworth brothers, is smartly restrained, balancing and intermeshing the private and the public with great delicacy. At the heart of this film is an exploration of the nexus where family loyalty is entangled with patriotism, love with professionalism, personal integrity with duty and service, all set under an excruciating pressure. Far from acting as abstract mottoes or perfunctory duties, these spheres of activity penetrate one another in the most intimate ways so that when one unravels, they all unravel.
Such is the price, as LeCarre might say, of “the secret life.” The larger structures of the social, which even in an open society, depend upon the clandestine, always already pulverize the individual, reducing her to a subject, as part of that agreement, and there is no protection, no immunity, from the state one serves, even in good faith. Any system with the clandestine at its core operates according to the logic of betrayal, then.
Fair Game is really an allegory about the decline and fall of the technocratic managers who preside over the American middle class's "counterfeit freedom," as Adorno puts it. This is particularly brought home, so to speak, by the film's two halves, in the first of which Plame conducts the Agency's business in Kuala Lumpur and Baghdad and the second, where the arena of global tensions takes over ordinary domestic spaces: the kitchen, the living room, the playground. The buffer that kept these two spheres separate is dissolved. As Jameson might say, this collapse of difference is the logic of late capital.
If the clandestine is the price for maintaining a politics of global influence and consumer affluence, then as citizens of empire we are each of us living in its shadows, on the thin margin between the unchecked privileges of power and the exposure which can, at any moment, plunge us into disaster.
UPDATE: By chance, the nominations for the Golden Globes were announced today. Neither "Fair Game" nor Naomi Watts were selected, which means that the social amnesia is all but complete and Denby is right. Iraq is so yesterday's news. That's a shame, because this picture, despite its weaknesses,* deserves so much more.
* As a former story analyst in Hollywood, my report would have recommended one less scene featuring either parent maintaining a stiff upper lip as the world collapses around them while their kids make a kid-like clamor. This kind of scenic domestic shorthand is no substitute for building up the texture of lived reality. I don't even recall the names of the children. One small scene -- perhaps it was excised? -- between father or mother and one of the twins would have gone a long way toward sustaining that sense of layering. On the other hand, the scene between Watts and her father, played by Sam Shepard, is near-perfect.