Reviews: 'Fair Game,' 'Client 9' movies show dangers of political gamesmanship

(Illustration by Washington Post)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010

When considering movies about political assassination, thoughts obviously turn to such Hollywood classics as "The Manchurian Candidate" and "JFK." But far more common, at least in Washington, is character assassination, which thanks to ever-increasing cynicism and a voracious 24-hour news cycle seems constantly to reach new highs -- or lows.

This season features two absorbing, of-the-moment elaborations on the dark arts of personal destruction, each taken from recent history. The documentary "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer," opening in Washington next week, sheds new conspiratorial light on the story of how the former New York governor was discovered hiring prostitutes. And "Fair Game," opening Friday, dramatizes events of 2003, when CIA officer Valerie Plame was outed after her husband, Joseph C. Wilson, criticized the invasion of Iraq.

Constructed as taut, skillfully calibrated thrillers, both "Client 9" and "Fair Game" portray the classic political hit job, not in terms of sharpshooters or high-tech rifles, but in its postmodern form: controlling the narrative and deploying it for maximum personal and political damage.

Oddly, some of the most effective and compelling elements of "Fair Game," which features terrific performances from Sean Penn as Wilson and Naomi Watts as his wife, have nothing to do with politics. The core of the story lies in the couple's personal story. From its depiction of Plame's efforts to develop contacts in foreign countries to Wilson's frustration at never knowing exactly where she is or what she's doing, "Fair Game" presents an unusually authentic portrayal of the life of a CIA operative (no "Salt"-worthy janitor's-closet explosives here). Certainly viewers will recognize the couple's struggles, as parents of young twins, to achieve work-family balance, made all the more piquant when Mom happens to be a spy.

(RELATED: 'Fair Game' gets some things right, some wrong)

Admittedly, director Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"), working from a well-crafted script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, has fallen hard for his subjects: In a pivotal scene where Wilson tries to persuade his wife to cooperate with a Vanity Fair interview, she's portrayed as reluctant; Liman conveniently elides the fact that she agreed to be photographed outside the White House in Wilson's convertible, dressed in a chic scarf and sunglasses, the resulting image helping solidify Wilson's reputation as a showboater. The filmmakers give Wilson lots of scenery-chewing, flag-waving speeches, which teeter precariously on the brink of hagiography. But they deftly address and dispel Wilson's own polarizing persona early in "Fair Game," when he alienates some friends at a dinner party. "I'm [a jerk]," he tells Plame simply. "You knew that when you married me."

Still, when it came to the facts -- at least about Niger, uranium and Iraq -- Wilson was right. And "Fair Game" shows with chilling, methodical skill how even someone with the truth on his side can be outgunned by sexier spin. "We have to change the story," says panicked vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, when he reads Wilson's whistleblowing op-ed in the New York Times.

"Who is Joe Wilson?" replies presidential adviser Karl Rove. You can almost see the light bulb going on over his head.

That scene is one of the few times that White House figures are depicted on-screen in "Fair Game." We never get a glimpse of actors playing George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Richard Armitage, who was later identified as the source who initially leaked Plame's identity to the press. Instead, Liman wisely portrays the opponents arrayed against Wilson and Plame as faceless, impassive forces behind Washington's most-imposing edifices. The drumbeats that emanate from behind the walls -- that Wilson was sent to Africa by his wife as a nepotistic boondoggle, that Plame wasn't a loyal public servant or even undercover, but a "third-rate" analyst -- inevitably wind up on cable food fight channels. There, the nasty insinuations warrant far more notice than the substance of Wilson's charge that Bush lied about the case for invading Iraq.

'Client 9' and Eliot Spitzer

As a gripping portrait of a modern political hit, "Client 9" has more than a little in common with "Fair Game," even if Spitzer gave his enemies far graver character flaws to exploit. As attorney general and later Democratic governor of New York, Spitzer was a crusading force against white-collar crime, environmental abuses and especially Wall Street malfeasance. As depicted in the recent documentary "Inside Job," Spitzer was willing to take on the corrupt dealings of financial kingpins while his counterparts in Washington resolutely shirked the job.

Spitzer's moral righteousness made his hypocrisy all the more difficult to take when he was discovered to have sent thousands of dollars to an offshore front company for a call girl operation -- the exact kind of enterprise he made such political hay from prosecuting. But filmmaker Alex Gibney makes a strong case in "Client 9" that Spitzer's career implosion was, if not engineered, than at least exponentially accelerated by his powerful corporate and political enemies -- including the consultant and lobbyist Roger Stone, who along with Rove claims status in Republican circles as a legendary knife fighter. With terrorism and the impending financial meltdown swirling, Gibney suggests, the Justice Department's decision to go after a "small-time prostitution ring" was dubious at best, suspicious at worst.

While Stone was gleefully helping the feds take Spitzer down, millions of American citizens watched their savings, homes and jobs disappear. Arguably, the stakes were even higher when Rove reportedly called Wilson's wife "fair game" during the PR campaign against him. The most explosive moment in the movie comes when Iraqi contacts developed by Plame are left stranded after her outing, their fates almost certainly doomed.

Those characters are composites, but "Fair Game" offers them as a stark reminder of the people overseas who were potentially put in harm's way when Plame's identity was weaponized. We'll never know their numbers or their names. But we do know Valerie Plame's. The lesson for would-be political hit men is clear: When it comes to neutralizing your enemies, who needs bullets when you have power, media savvy and a masterfully manipulated story?

Fair Game (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for profanity.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (117 minutes, opens Nov. 12 at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for sexual material, nudity and language.

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