Starring: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn
Directed by: Doug Liman
Doug Liman redeems himself after Jumper, with a film about a very different husband-and-wife team from the titular couple of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Fair depicts the "Plame Affair”, when the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame was leaked by government elements to the press, and her husband former Ambassador Joseph Wilson labelled a fraud for challenging the "facts" as presented by the Bush Administration. The film is based on books that Wilson and Plame had written in the aftermath of the fiasco.
The film is as much weighty political thriller as it is a biopic. Tension is very effectively generated, and the conversations never become mundane or sedate. The film's greatest strength is its uncompromisingly bleak authenticity, it's willingness to present everyday life at its frightening worst.
Everyone loves a good underdog story, and Fair Game is centred on the "David" of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson and the "Goliath" of the Bush administration. I'm sure that the couple were made to unnecessarily endure a good deal of trauma, but sometimes it does get hard to buy the White House as the "big bad wolf", and only as that. However, credit is due for the decision to stay away from engineered melodrama and blatant shows of emotion. When Plame does have a breakdown, it feels real and heartwrenching.
This leads me on to a good part of why the film works as a political thriller with a documentary slant: the performances. Naomi Watts' portrayal of Plame is unflinchingly intense, and without much effort the actress shows Plames' struggles to balance being a wife, mother and CIA operative all at once, with the world bearing down on her for something that was not her fault. Sean Penn, who also starred alongside Watts in "21 Grams" and "The Assassination of Richard Nixon", is excellent as usual. It can be said that Joe Wilson is more "normal" than post Penn characters, but by no means less interesting.
While Plame and Wilson are the focus of the film, it never feels like they hog the limelight. Liraz Chari portrays Dr Zahraa, used by the CIA to get access to her nuclear physicist brother, with a genuine frailness and justified caution. David Andrews is delectably - but never overtly - slimy as real-life Vice-Presidential advisor Scooter Libby. He is one of those villains you love to hate, and what makes his performance all the more scary is that this guy exists in real life.
Director Liman gets in the thick of it and shoots the dialogue scenes as if they were action sequences, which is a good way to pump up the suspense. It is to his credit that while most of the film consists of people talking, it is always riveting and never boring. After a while, his penchant for handheld closeup shots does border on the excessive, but it's never anything to worry about.
The movie globe-trots a fair bit, opening in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and hopping about Washington D.C., Niger, Egypt and Iraq. The locations are all pictured convincingly and never glamourised or exoticised. They function merely as backdrops for the plot to unfold, and it is rare that such movies don't veer into "scenery porn". There is a great shot where a US Army helicopter scatters leaflets onto the ground – it’s poignant, effective and almost artistic.
In the end, the film does make for a good, thought-provoking watch. It is nothing too intellectual and is still good entertainment, and Plame and Wilson should be proud that director Liman, stars Watts and Penn and the others involved in making "Fair Game" have done them much justice. However, it does get bogged down by its fist-shaking anger and political message.