Reviewed at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
As has been said of robbery, so it is for espionage: You can do a lot more with a fountain pen than with a gun. “Fair Game” tells the story of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), a Washington couple like any other — kids, money woes, marital strife — and unlike any other, with his past as an ambassador and diplomat and her covert work as a CIA operative working in nuclear non-proliferation.
In the lead-up to the Iraq war, Wilson was asked to travel to Niger to see if there was any truth to the suggestion that the struggling country had sold, or had been asked to sell, 50 tons of “yellowcake” uranium ore to Iraq. Wilson found no evidence to support that claim and relayed his conclusions to the White House. The White House deliberately ignored his take, and, when Wilson made his conclusions and his anger at the White House’s distortions public in a New York Times piece, struck back not only challenging his assertions but naming his wife as a CIA operative, blowing her cover, ending her career and endangering anyone she’d ever worked with.
After delivering genre excitement with varying degrees of success in “The Bourne Identity” (excellent), “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (glossy trashy fun) and “Jumper” (a blatant sellout no one wanted to buy), Doug Liman tries to bridge the distance between run-and-gun excitement and solid, serious drama with “Fair Game,” premiering as the only film from an American director in competition at Cannes. It’s a well-made and stirring movie, on the level of both the personal (How will this marriage survive?) and the political (How will this nation survive?). “Fair Game” is nicely shot, written in a blunt and brisk style that assumes you’re capable of following along, a rare pleasure in the modern American cinema.
Liman’s casting choices work; Watts is finely-tuned as Plame, a woman who tells lies for her country with ease but agonizes over speaking the truth for her own benefit. Penn’s Wilson is a bull-headed blowhard who, even more annoyingly, is often right; at times Penn’s acting seems less like a performance than a spin on his public image. At the same time, Watts conveys how much of Plame’s work involved baffling, bluffing and bullying people, and Penn shows Wilson’s quieter moments of doubt between his shouts of anger.
Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, adapting both Plame and Wilson’s memoirs, fill the film with leavening humor and matter-of-fact realism about the paper-shuffling nature of modern spycraft. After she’s exposed as a CIA operative, one of Plame’s friends can’t hold back her curiosity about the John le Carré cliché’s: “Do you have lovers all over the world? Do you have a gun? Have you killed people?” After his trip to Africa culminates in him drafting a lengthy memo, Wilson notes, “I’m not feeling very 0-0-7-ish…”
And that is the greatest challenge “Fair Game” faces; it’s a movie about the fact we don’t live in a movie, a drama about how the thousands of lives and millions of dollars wasted on the war with Iraq affected one couple’s marriage. “Fair Game” works, and works well, as high-class well-intended entertainment for grown-ups, but when it ends with Wilson driving the point home to a crowd and Plame being driven to testify to Congress, you can feel Liman straining to bridge the gulf between the happy ending movies are supposed to provide and the unhappy reality of the world outside the theater.
Detractors will suggest that “Fair Game” feels like someone took the stiletto-sharp satire of “In the Loop,” turned it around and cudgeled you with the blunt handle. But “Fair Game” doesn’t want to succeed as satire; it wants to remind us that the joke’s on us, and the joke’s not funny. Others will sneer that if you took the Oscar-caliber actors out of the lead roles and opened the camera up two stops to let some light in, “Fair Game” would be revealed as a TV-movie, but I think Liman’s film specifically succeeds as ambitious and engaging cinema because there’s something hard and unyielding at “Fair Game”‘s core that can’t be mocked or dismissed: We were lied to, and we live in the consequences of that lie.
“Fair Game” will be released by Summit Entertainment later this year.
[Photos: “Fair Game,” Summit Entertainment, 2010]