(by Dustin Putman
No, "Fair Game" isn't a remake of the 1995 action-thriller starring the irresistible, can't-miss combo of William Baldwin and Cindy Crawford. Based on the book of the same name by Valerie Plame and "The Politics of Truth" by Joseph Wilson, the film seeks to dramatize the real-life events surrounding undercover CIA operative Plame and ambassador husband Wilson after the former's identity was revealed in a Washington Post article. Those who are familiar with the case won't learn very much from this telling, but technically and acting-wise it's on solid ground. Bringing a raw immediacy to each frame, director-cinematographer Doug Liman (2008's "Jumper") adopts a handheld style that really works. The screenplay by Jez Butterworth (2001's "Birthday Girl") and John-Henry Butterworth, meanwhile, is straightforward and no-nonsense, free of the usual movie-version clichés found in fictional spy pics. One can be assured Valerie Plame is never seen sporting a gun or having one pointed at her, though the thrashing she receives personally and in the media might as well be bullets. Article continues below
As a nearly twenty-year CIA op working across the globe while playing fictional versions of herself, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) has lived her life perfecting the art of deception. With the exception of husband Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn) and her parents (Sam Shepard and Polly Holliday), no one on the outside knows what she truly does for a living—a critical requirement of her job. When President George W. Bush announces that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Joseph disputes these claims; after all, he was the original source who traveled to Niger to investigate this very thing and came back with no evidence to back this suspicion. His calling-out of Bush's dishonesty is the catalyst for a vitriolic firestorm that leads to Valerie's identity being blown. Her marriage becoming strained after losing her job, her friends, her reputation, and just about everything she has worked for, Valerie is suddenly thrust into an unwelcome spotlight with seemingly little she can do about it.
The 1948 Manhattan-set film noir "The Naked City" ended with a famous quote stating that there are eight million stories in the title location. The same could be said about Washington, D.C., which is ripe with storytelling fodder involving dirty politics and government intrigue. "Fair Game" is the latest one, and director Doug Liman does a fine job of depicting the much-publicized events surrounding Valerie Plame's outing in July 2003. Critical of those who swing their power around even at the risk of lying to millions, the picture doesn't bring much that is new to the table, sticking mostly to the facts. When Liman does personalize matters and delves into the people at the center of the maelstrom, narrows in on the couple's conflicting sensibilities—at the onset, he's fighting-mad about the injustice occurring while she recoils, hoping it will blow over—and eventual marital woes, the somewhat dry drama suddenly comes alive.
Peripheral performances are sturdy and without fault, blending together with a naturalism to match its docudrama roots, but the spotlight no doubt belongs to Naomi Watts (2009's "The International") and Sean Penn (2008's "Milk"), both instant awards contenders as married couple Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson. Penn, a politically vocal personality in his own right, really appears to understand the man he is playing; it's a role made for him. Watts is every bit as good, as intelligent as her character, indelibly exploring Valerie's journey toward accepting and embracing who she really is rather than the persona she has hid behind for most of her adult life. Together, Watts and Penn build an on-screen relationship—messy, heated, emotionally passionate—that rings true.
Were it not for the sterling work of its two leads and the attention to who they are behind their veils, "Fair Game" would be a strictly cold experience right down to its overcast, blustery, blue-gray visuals. This occasional detachment does not take away the proficiency with which the plot is handled, but the humanity director Doug Liman chooses to finally bring to it, especially in the second half, helps to paint a more identifiable entry-point. The film may ultimately not have the consistent dramatic impact it ought to, but it's a mature, important one all the same.