Based on true events, Fair Game is slickly directed with strong performances from Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.
Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts
It's no surprise that Doug Liman is fascinated with spies and the murky world of government espionage. After all, his father presided over the Iran-Contra investigation. The director has since claimed that The Bourne Identity, which he directed, was loosely based on the Oliver North trial.
More spies came and went in his comedy Mr and Mrs Smith, remembered mostly for being the film on the set of which Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie fell in love. He tried to turn the movie into a TV series before having a bit more success as a producer with the series Covert Affairs.
So it's no surprise that the director jumped at the chance to direct a movie based on the Valerie Plame affair, the facts of which are condensed into the first half.
Naomi Watts plays Plame, a CIA operative specialising in nuclear proliferation. She plays the agent as a no-nonsense operative, dedicated to her job, who skilfully keeps her occupation secret from her friends and the local community where her children go to school. She wears sharp suits and is as private as her husband is flamboyant. While she runs off to covert meetings around the globe, her husband is at home looking after the children.
Sean Penn plays her husband Joe Wilson. It's the type of role that he excels in: a rebellious, gregarious character who fights for what he believes. Whenever he's on screen he gets to chew up the furniture with flamboyant gestures and grand pronouncements; acting that could seem ham-fisted to anyone who hasn't seen footage of the man upon whom the role is based. However, Penn plays Wilson beautifully.
Indeed, it's Wilson's refusal to back down and play ball with the government that lands his wife in trouble. Wilson is employed by the CIA to investigate and write a report on whether Niger could be involved in supplying uranium to Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
He reports in the negative, but is then shocked to discover that his work has been doctored and is now being used to support claims that Hussein has a stash of weapons of mass destruction ready to use at any time. So in 2003, Wilson writes an op-ed piece for the New York Times, stating that the Bush administration has manipulated intelligence to justify an invasion into Iraq. The Bush administration tries to discredit Wilson, a former US ambassador and special assistant to Bill Clinton, by claiming that he was unqualified to write the report and that the only reason that he got the job was because his wife gave her husband the role.
Having presented the facts with aplomb, Liman then chooses to focus on the personal. The film is more about how the relationship between husband and wife is affected than about the Iraq war or the doctoring of information.
Initially Plame, so effectively conditioned by the CIA, opposes her husband's stance and what she sees as his hankering for media attention.
The marriage rift and the reaction of the community become the focus of the story. It is effective in highlighting these central characters, supported by two fine performances in the middle. However Liman, for all the rhetoric of the picture, could have done more to focus on the nature of the institutions at work.
The CIA in particular gets off lightly and there is no serious investigation or criticism when Plame is shown trying to manipulate a situation to get the results the US government wants to find, rather than simply investigate the truth.
It makes Fair Game something of a conundrum: excellently directed, well acted, more interesting then most American films about the Iraq war, but still falling ever so slightly short of five-star status.