Fair Game: Power, politics and domestic drama

Wael Eskandar, Sunday 23 Jan 2011

Egyptian actors Khaled Al Nabawy and Hanaa Abdel Fattah star alongside Naomi Watts and Sean Penn in Doug Liman’s Fair Game

Fair Game
Khaled El Nabawy and Hanaa Abdel Fattah star in the political drama Fair Game with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts

Fair Game succeeds at being both a political and domestic drama. The movie is inspired by the true story of Valerie Palme, an undercover CIA operative whose identity had been revealed in the papers by White House government officials. The film documents the disregard of the US for intelligence gathered which proved there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

A few scenes stand out in this somewhat philosophical drama that makes Fair Game a movie worth watching amongst other things. The movie commences by taking us through the life of an undercover CIA operative, whose operations range all the way from Kuala Lampur to Cairo and Baghdad. We get a very non-romanticised version of a domestic life, where she has a husband and children, as well as friends.

Set in 2001, Valerie (Naomi Watts) is assigned to a fact- finding mission in order to determine whether or not Iraq has a nuclear programme. Her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) is a former ambassador, who flies to Niger to determine whether uranium has been sold to Iraq.

Politics come into play when the vice-president’s office is determined to draw its conclusions and goes about hunting for any evidence supporting it, whether it is true or false. As the story unfolds the politics, the lies and media manipulation take form as we visit the inner sanctum of American politics.

The movie starts with a political air to it and while it is very interesting from a political standpoint, it is not engaging on a personal level. It takes a steep turn when Joe Wilson writes an article in the New York Times exposing the president’s lies about Iraq’s nuclear programme. In retaliation, Valerie’s identity is revealed by the White House.

The movie then becomes very personal as Joe and Valerie’s marriage is in jeopardy as they struggle with how to deal with the situation they’re faced with. The domestic is authentic, believable and moving, with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts delivering top-notch performances that reflect the true nature of a strained marital relationship.

One of the film’s most-discussed topics is power and if people or the truth can stand up to it. In a very moving scene Penn shouts louder than Watts, “If I say it louder, does it make it true?” However both the characters of Plame and Wilson are idealised, with Wilson being overly self-righteous making the drama a clear-cut good versus bad.

Through the film we’re presented with the reality that most governments share similar acts of oppression. The difference is that the US is a republic where people have to continuously fight for democracy and to take down tyranny. Penn relays the story of Benjamin Franklin. When asked what sort of government he has bequeathed the United States, his reply was, “A republic…if you can keep it.”

Camera movements are raw especially when it comes to domestic scenes and the music never undermines the performances. The script could have well been divided into two films, with two different genres, one for the political ramifications and another for the personal and social strains faced by the uncovering of Plame’s identity. It might be argued however that political events always affect people personally.

Egyptian actor Hanaa Abdel Fattah plays the role of an Iraqi nuclear scientist masquerading as a Cairo University professor, whose children have been taken by Sadam’s guard never to be heard of again. Khaled El Nabawy convincingly plays the role of another Iraqi scientist who awaits the American salvation promised to him.

Naomi Watts delivers a reserved but determined performance to match the exceptionally, tough Valerie Plame. Sean Penn’s character, completely radical and passionate, delivers masterful scenes that delve into the heart, not only of values related to relationships and emotions, but of values related to one’s duty in the face of unjust acts.

The film works well with the characters, without lazy stereotyping, while discussing fundamental values and ideas. It is also a somewhat romanticised lesson that a democratic country isn’t a place where violations do not occur, but where people are capable of standing up to their rulers and, on occasion win.

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