We reviewed this film earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, but here’s another take.
“Fair Game,” based on a pair of memoirs centered around a hot-button political issue from a few years ago, starts off as a gripping true-life spy thriller along the lines of Billy Ray‘s under-appreciated “Breach.” Naomi Watts, as Valerie Plame, is a kind of tactical C.I.A. coordinator, and director Doug Liman, who crafted the first “Bourne” film, creates a heart-pounding, ratatat rhythm to everyday war-on-terror-era espionage. It’s only when the movie switches gears from a rousing suspense piece to a piercing portrait of a marriage besieged not only by internal problems but by a firestorm of political controversy that the movie loses edge. Once Watts’ Plame gets taken out of the field, we get taken out of the movie.
We get thrown right into the action — it’s right before the invasion of Iraq. The C.I.A. is rounding up evidence as to whether or not Iraq has the capacity and resources for a nuclear program. Plame, the operative, enlists the help of her husband, Joe Wilson (a perpetually indignant Sean Penn), a former ambassador who now runs a private consulting firm, to assist her on research in Africa. This is where, the official story went, yellow cake uranium was being enriched and elongated metal tubes were being trafficked, both with the intention of later use in said nuclear program. The only problem, of course, was that both Plame and Wilson didn’t find shit, with various members of the agency and the Bush White House, pushing along flimsy evidence as a concrete case for conflict.
What makes these early sequences so compelling is that they are briskly, energetically rendered; they positively crackle with moral outrage. In a great scene, one of Plame’s informants, who supposedly worked within Saddam’s inner circle, says that the nuclear program was shut down after Bush Senior’s strike, and that most everybody knows that. Thanks to Liman’s direction, which uses a clipped editorial style and unstable cinematography, you’re put right into these situations with a level of you-are-there immediacy missing that borders on the electric.
The administration officials are clearly the villains, but Liman wisely layers their nefariousness, shading them with a combination of naiveté, propulsive drive, anger and arrogance. When Plame is stonewalled from speaking her mind about the misbegotten invasion and the significant lack of evidence suggesting a nuclear program, she’s shut down with casual callousness. She has people out there, in the field, agents and informants, who she needs to retrieve, but the race to war has other plans.
It’s here that the movie takes its turn. Plame’s husband decides to write an op-ed for the New York Times about the phoniness of the administration’s evidence. It sends shock waves not only through America and through the world, but through their household. Up until this point, we’ve seen Wilson as the stay-at-home-dad, more or less. A career politician whose promise has dried up, forced to go on the odd, lightly attended speaking tour and forced to look at the scars and bruises that covers his wife’s body as she lies sleeping next to him, and imagine what has happened to her. His righteous indignity, which the movie justly shares, gets both himself and his wife in a lot of hot water leading to, eventually, her being ousted in the press as an undercover agent. Still, we’re never quite sure if he really wrote the piece for the good of the country, or to elevate his own subdued status, no matter the consequences (it’s a testament to the movie that it doesn’t firmly answer this question in any concrete way).
By now we know that the same Bush administration officials that stonewalled her investigation were also responsible for revealing her identity. There’s a whole lot of inter-office frustration and anger that results as fallout from Plame’s outing. These sequences are staged as the opposite of the let’s-go-get-them opening sequences, with a lack of progress replacing those early sequences forward momentum. The problem is that, as this is the section where we are to be appropriately roused by the developments, the movie gets cluttered and slightly clunky, with the more compelling political overtones of the situation often colliding (loudly) with the at-home misfortunes of the couple.
It’s here that the movie’s central message is revealed: just as the personal is political, the political is also deeply personal. For long stretches we watch, agonizingly, as Wilson takes on a variety of talk show appearances and news interviews while Plame, now forced into the role of doting mother and wife, gets swept up in the tailspin of unjustly losing her job and having the weight (and guilt) of all those agents and assets that won’t be extracted. Penn and Watts play the parts beautifully, but as this section of the movie stretches on, and Penn is saddled with a seemingly endless array of chest-thumping speeches, that some of the movie’s power seems lost; its immediacy and anger gets washed away by comparatively trite domestic troubles.
This is a shame, since so much of the movie weaves its particular spell around you. Liman, back in the “Bourne” school of filmmaking (coupled with his indie movie ethos, as developed on things like “Swingers” and “Go“), feels reborn. Keep in mind that the last time he was behind the camera he gave us the befuddling “Jumper,” which we seem to recall was about people teleporting all over the place for no discernible reason besides the fact that it looked cool in the “X-Men” movies, so anything would be an improvement. But here, his talents as a storyteller are on full display — the way he condenses and expands time and place, switching locales around becomes as easy as a transition from scene to scene. It’s just that, when burdened by the speechifying third act, not even the most energetic filmmaking could wrestle free of that weight.
It’s because the movie doesn’t stick the ending that we feel it might not be getting the amount of buzz and Oscar-y attention that it was once destined for. No matter how fine the performances are, or the craftsmanship of the film itself, we are never invited, wholly, into the emotional lives of these characters. They always feel like stand-ins for the greater moral conflict of the Iraq invasion, and as such, there’s a level of humanity that is lost, no matter how many sequences of the couple fighting we watch. In the end, we feel like Plame: outed from the action and unable to connect. [B-]