For those outside the United States, the biggest drawcard of Fair Game is likely to be Naomi Watts teaming up with Sean Penn again after their success in 2003’s 21 Grams. But the nature of this post-9/11 film appeals to international viewers just as much as it does to Americans, who know the story of how CIA agent Valerie Plame’s name was leaked and the battle that ensued all too well.
The first half shows plenty of similarities to other recent Iraq War ‘spy’ films, if Fair Game can be called as such. Valerie Plame (Watts) is seemingly the average wife/mother but is really a CIA manager of sorts, overseeing operations across the Middle East as the hunt for weapons of mass destruction intensifies and the amount of legitimate evidence decreases. This has been done before (Green Zone most recently) but it’s only to express the truths of citizens and government employees questioning the misleading White House. That’s what lands Valerie in trouble after husband and former US Ambassador Joe Wilson (Penn) pinpoints the then-Bush administration as manipulating information on WMDs, leading to the turmoil of her revealed identity.
Director Doug Liman, at home with these types of thinking action films after The Bourne Identity (2002), creates interesting plot throughout the story, keeping it clear without patronising you as the audience. As an Iraq War film, he draws on American thinking and opinion to exploit the inadequacies of the Bush government, using Valerie’s story to show the now-general belief that the WMDs didn’t exist. Which was so blatantly obvious, but that’s for another day. What sets Fair Game apart from other Iraq War films trying to personalise the battles (again like Green Zone) is how it becomes less about fieldwork and more about the scrutiny from citizens and the media as Valerie finds herself fighting a very public personal battle. The fourth estate is a very fickle thing, and the pressures put on Valerie and Joe become the foundation for what makes the film work best in its second half.
You’ll come out of Fair Game knowing Watts and Penn are dynamic as a couple fighting as small fish in a big pond. With good support from Ty Burrell and Noah Emmerich as CIA officials, the strength in the couples’ respective roles lifts the film as they fight not only uh, the world, but their private relationship. Liman, also cinematographer and producer, puts a bit of personality into the film by creating more humanism, and besides a Hollywood-ish ending reeking of patriotism, finds a healthy balance of drama and thrills. While as a Hollywood film it works well in keeping audiences interested and intrigued, being ‘based on a true story’ will come across as a stretch to some. Americans will no doubt question the film’s credibility as a true biopic, with screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s decision to cut out key characters Richard Armitage and Robert Novak misleading. As the man who leaked Valerie’s name and the journalist who published it respectfully, you could say their omission is a fairly big deal.
This film is Fair Game; Liman’s version of the Plame-Wilson drama is a spirited fight.
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