Connecting the Dots from Bush to Trump: Doug Liman Recuts His 8-Year-Old Valerie Plame Movie ‘Fair Game’

The director didn't ask permission before recutting a new version of the film that will hit Netflix November 1.
Doug Liman Recuts Valerie Plame Movie with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn
"Fair Game"
Summit Entertainment

Doug Liman is an independent filmmaker who gets away with murder in Hollywood because he boasts a string of major hits, from “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “The Bourne Identity” to “Edge of Tomorrow.” He often throws sets into chaos in order to achieve unexpected results. “My films have been successful and therefore the process has accommodated me,” he once told me. “When the studio said ‘no,’ I did it anyhow. Now, they don’t say no to me.”

National Board of Review Awards Gala, New York, America - 05 Jan 2016
Doug LimanStephen Lovekin/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Indeed. Liman’s films are consistently watchable and entertaining in their quirky unpredictability, even with his misfires (see: “Jumper”). Indie-financed “Fair Game” (Summit Entertainment), which earned mixed reviews (Metascore: 69) and struggled at the 2010 box office (domestic total: $9 million), is hardly the usual candidate for a re-release 8 years later. Yet here it is. “I’ve never seen a rule I didn’t think about breaking,” he told me on the phone.

In typical fashion, Liman didn’t ask permission before he decided to re-cut a new version of “Fair Game.” Liman cut corners in order to edit at home on his own Avid. When he showed it to Lionsgate, they chose to enhance the film’s library value with a re-release and Netflix debut ahead of the election. (Liman wanted to give the film away, but they didn’t let him do that. He can show it to schools for free.) It will hit digital platforms October 23 and Netflix on November 1.

“Fair Game” always resonated for Liman. (His father, the late attorney Arthur Liman, was chief counsel for the Senate’s investigation of the Iran-Contra affair.) Jez and John-Henry Butterworth adapted Valerie Plame’s memoir “Fair Game: My Life as a Spy,” about how the government leaked the identity of the CIA operative (Naomi Watts) as payback for her husband Joe Wilson’s (Sean Penn) criticism of the Bush administration. At the time Liman told me, “Valerie Plame is the most challenging character I have ever brought to the screen.”

The filmmaker’s reasons for going back into the edit bay were myriad. One was Penn: back in 2010, Liman changed his director’s cut to placate his demanding star. “Sean had things going on in his personal life when we were making the film, impacting his performance,” Liman said. “What he considered a genius performance and what I considered a genius performance were not necessarily the same. You can’t necessarily corral genius on set, but you can do it in the editing room.”

In the end, Penn refused to do press for the movie anyway. “It was not the best version of the movie,” Liman said. “From the moment it was released, it was a thorn in my side.”

Another reason for making changes was President Donald Trump’s April 2018 pardon of Scooter Libby, who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with disclosing the identity of CIA agent Plame. “All these years later, when Trump picks him to be his fifth pardon, it gave me a new sense of urgency,” Liman said.

River Road’s Bill Pohlad had no problem with Liman re-editing the movie. He was the same producer who forgave Liman for going rogue and going on his own to film in war-torn Baghdad when he had been forbidden to do so. “It was important to me for the authenticity of ‘Fair Game’ that some of it was shot in Baghdad,” said Liman. “Sean had been there as a human target to stop the war. I wanted to see it with my own eyes.”

Liman brought in his early collaborator on “Swingers” and “Go,” Oscar-winning editor Stephen Mirrione (“Traffic”). “It was forensic, to go back into the editing system and find the right version,” Liman said. But after looking at the material, Liman realized a few years had given him new perspective on the film, which was made on top of the events as they happened.

“Fair Game”Summitt Entertainment

In the wrong hands, the film’s politically charged exposition and sincere dogma could have been deadly, indeed. That’s why producers Jerry and Janet Zucker, who struggled to raise financing from multiple sources (River Road, Participant Media, Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ ) hired Liman, despite his colorful reputation.

Having recently screened the new film to several audiences, Liman thinks it plays better now than when it came out with President Obama in the White House. “The film is gut-wrenching and more emotionally satisfying,” he said. “Like Professor Ford standing up in front of the Brett Kavanaugh freight train, it’s a story about citizens standing up to the president and coming forward, confronting overwhelming power. At its heart, it’s about the consequences involved in trying to speak truth to power.”

Here’s his official statement on why he recut the movie:

DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT – FAIR GAME Friday, September 14, 2018

I was never truly satisfied with the version of Fair Game that was theatrically released in 2010.  I knew that Naomi Watts and Sean Penn had given more compelling performances, and that the proximity of making the movie to the events it portrayed had not given me the perspective of time.  I owed it to myself, to Naomi, to Sean, to Valerie Plame, and to my audience, to go back in and do better.

I recognized that re-cutting and rereleasing a film is a little like an artist showing up with a brush and paint to the home of someone who bought his painting to make a few changes.  I mean are you really allowed to do that?  And then I thought.  Why not.

And then Trump pardoned Scooter Libby – and releasing the director’s cut of Fair Game took on new urgency for me.   Remember that in 2003 the White House leaked the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame to deflect attention from her husband Joe Wilson who publicly challenged the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war in Iraq.   And Scooter Libby was convicted of four counts, including obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI, and sentenced to jail.  By a jury of 12 citizens.

Academy Award-winning editor Stephen Mirrione, who cut my first films, did this recut with me.

Now that Trump has pardoned Scooter Libby, the story is done (as pardons are forever).  I went back into the film one last time to reflect that pardon.  I can now say with confidence that the film finally is finished.

My hope is that audiences are reminded to hold their government accountable and remember that the actions of just one or two individuals can make a difference. —      Doug Liman

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