I went to see Fair Game over the weekend for probably similar reasons that a certain segment of the population started buying large quantities of the book Atlas Shrugged around the same time the credit rating agencies started downgrading to “worthless” the first of those trillions or so in mortgage securities that would eventually bring down capitalism. That and Sean Penn, but duh; don’t deny it was a brilliant casting decision just because it was such a very obvious one!

The Valerie Plame story is the improbable tale that manages to reach the elite “apotheosis” level of Bush Administration corruption without making a central plot point out of the indiscriminate killing and/or sexual humiliation of innocents perpetuated by some legally-immune triple-billing defense contractor or some other similarly depressing scheme by which the rich concocted innovative new ways to profit off human misery, etc. etc. etc. Now, as we learn in Fair Game, it is very possible—in fact, the movie implies that you might as well upgrade that to “almost certain”—that some poor Iraqi scientists and their families gave their lives as a very direct result of Karl Rove‘s decision to teach a lesson to all the would-be Plame-Wilson duos in Langley, but the movie doesn’t really follow this thread very far and let’s be honest you are not here to learn more about the slaughter of innocents. You are here because Valerie Plame was a glamorous spy who also happened to be on the side of “good” and what with all the mind-alteringly weird polling data and surreal Bush Administration revisionism going on these days you need to be reminded, as painlessly as possible, what it was like when the “bad” guys were in charge.

And Fair Game would have been the perfect vehicle for reminding audiences of the badness of those still-not-very-old days if it weren’t so distractingly bad itself. This kind of thing never seems to turn off devotees of Atlas Shrugged and I would feel a bit guilty even pointing it out if I hadn’t already endured the shame of being virtually the only person in the movie theater moved involuntarily to snort, snicker, and occasionally start giggling hysterically during all the most supposedly climactic scenes.

But that is just the thing: I wasn’t trying to hate this movie, my liberals. The shitty script practically waterboarded me into it. How was I supposed to know the screenwriter would adhere so closely to a blanket don’t ask don’t tell policy surrounding every key decision leading up to Joe Wilson’s publication of his Times op-ed and pretty much every consequential moment directly afterwards, such that the audience would be left without the faintest notion as to whether he’d penned the thing wholly on his own without the faintest awareness (much less consent) of his wife, or whether the whole thing was a deliberate CIA plot to undermine the presidency from start to finish. Seriously, it is that fucking ambiguous. And because we never see Joe addressing the actual substance of his op-ed column with Valerie, before or after the fact, and because we do not even know whether or not they ever did talk about it, much less what they said, the whole “portrait of the modern marriage” selling point of Fair Game is pretty fucking weak. We barely see these people talking about anything more consequential than whose turn it is to pick up the nanny! And so when Naomi Watts starts to get all teary during a routine nighttime tooth brushing session toward the end, one is almost left wondering, as the camera lingers weirdly after her toothpaste spit, where’s the fucking blood? And when she finally breaks it to her father—whose bona fide status as some sort of Real American is established via a somewhat autistic enumeration of bases at which he served in the military—that she’s worried her marriage may be over, and her father fairly automatically accuses her of being melodramatic, it’s like “No shit!”

Except that, you know, this was a big fucking story, and it probably was pretty dramatic and you know, most likely completely brutal on their relationship, especially given how their twins were still little and sex was probably very much a rarity. But since we are apparently allowed to know anything about how we actually went down—also not discussed, incidentally: that Vanity Fair shoot!—we are expected to be sated by preposterously stilted lines like this one at the end in which the (again, misty eyed) Watts recalls her incredibly valorous performance during CIA training camp, and—decisively not fighting back tears—sobs about how “they’ve finally found [her] breaking point.” By the absurd scene in which she returns home to McLean and, first thing in the door, announces tearily-bit-triumphantly to her husband her newfound conviction that “they” can’t or won’t “take my marriage!” I was actually having a pretty good time enjoying the movie on its own histrionic, all-the-nuance-of-a-Mariah Carey-video terms.

But what a waste of Sean Penn, not to mention the hugely important, exciting, grippingly plotted totally true story they had there. The thing is that the Wilsons’ marriage, for as un-illuminating as this movie is into its inner workings, is about the only thing the makers of Fair Game do attempt to illuminate here. There’s zero insight into the Bush Administration, which actually bothered breaking the law over the matter, or the intelligence community, whose culture, hierarchy and operations are depicted as pretty much akin to those of your central casting Type A white-collar workplace. Iraq, for its part, at least distinguishes itself as the supposed birthplace of the movie’s hottest cast member, some chick named Liraz Charhi who more than compensates for her cartoonishly joyless “solemn Arab doctor” character with a vast personal stockpile of gratuitously lustrous hair.

But otherwise Fair Game generally consists of an even emptier than usual bout of typical empty Hollywood liberal moralizing that redeems itself by the end only via a few nearly-transcendently bad dramatic scenes, Sean Penn, and this one character’s hair. Which would be almost fine, if I had not seen it in a theater full of respectable-looking middle-aged DC residents who for some incomprehensible reason felt moved to stand up and clap at the end of it.

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