Fight the power, kinda – Fair Game review

Fair Game – Starring Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and David Andrews. Directed by Doug Liman. Rated M. Originally published November 23, 2010. By Simon Miraudo.

Fair Game is as thrilling and passionate as its title suggests; which is to say, not very. Doug Liman’s latest tells the true story of CIA agent Valerie Plame, whose secret identity was allegedly revealed by the White House as a distraction from the War on Iraq (which her husband Ambassador Joe Wilson claimed was based on a lie). The tale seems too shocking to be true. There is material here for a masterpiece; a devastating document of modern history akin to All The President’s Men. So why then is Liman’s execution so … flippant?

Here is a film that takes place in the days following September 11, 2001, yet it fails to convey any sense of panic. It details the days leading up to the United States’ invasion of Iraq, yet it fails to capture a sense of urgency. It features a man and woman’s lone struggle against a smear-campaign forged by the White House and spread by the monolithic media machine, yet it just doesn’t feel like a big deal. The movie may be called Fair Game, but surely Liman could have injected a little bit of fury.

Given the White House’s penchant for burying bad buzz, there’s a chance you’re unfamiliar with – or have perhaps forgotten – this unsettling saga. Newshounds however will no doubt recall the trials and tribulations of Valerie Plame, as documented in her memoir Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, and now brought to life by Liman and screenwriters Jez and John Butterworth. Plame (a graceful and poised Naomi Watts) had spent roughly fifteen years working for the CIA – establishing herself as one of their preeminent covert officers – before being abandoned entirely by the agency that she’d given so much. The trouble starts in 2002, when her diplomat husband Joe Wilson (an affably arrogant Sean Penn) is sent to Niger to see if they’re selling Iraq uranium. It is his professional opinion that they are not, but still the White House declares war on Iraq based on “British” intelligence to the contrary. When Wilson publishes an op-ed piece in the New York Times claiming President George W. Bush has invaded Iraq on a twisted version of the truth, the White House – specifically COS to the Vice President Scooter Libby (David Andrews) – responds by leaking Plame’s identity, destroying her career and endangering the lives of her entire family.

Great story, right? So what of the execution? Liman – perhaps inspired by his Bourne successor Paul Greengrass – sticks the camera right up into the faces of his actors, as if annoying the audience is equal to crafting genuine tension. I understand the reasons behind the handicam aesthetic, but honestly I’ve seen more believable neo-realism in The Office. Two characters may be having a seated conversation, and the camera will shake around for seemingly no reason at all, as if the DOP were trying to capture a fly with his lens. It has the equivalent effect of a character picking up a knife in a horror movie and it making “that knife sound”; at this point it’s a clichéd device that is best used now as a parody of itself.

Now, the film’s technical failings are not what ultimately ruin it, but rather, its emotional failings. When dealing with larger than life villains such as, oh, the former President of the United States and his entire cabinet, it’s important to be restrained. All The President’s Men – the foremost film on the Watergate scandal – knew to keep well enough away from depicting Richard Nixon and his lackeys. Even George Clooney wisely decided to use real footage of Joseph McCarthy in Good Night and Good Luck rather than hire an actor (who would have surely sweatily mugged for the camera). Although Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice are saved from being portrayed onscreen by actors in Fair Game, the same cannot be said for Scooter Libby (who is portrayed like a dastardly Bond villain) and Press Secretary Ari Fleischer (who acts like a snivelling fool) among others. These cartoonish depictions do not add weight to the real issues, and certainly don’t honour the seriousness of the events being portrayed.

A subplot about an Iraqi family is all but abandoned (and again, not treated with appropriate weight), and any semblance of sincerity is almost ruined by a final reel lecture in which the film’s message is hammered home (in case you missed it earlier). I take no pleasure in criticising a movie like Fair Game, which is a story that needed to be told, and features enough good performances to be worth the price of admission. It’s just a shame that Liman and the Butterworths should fail the material.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Fair Game arrives on DVD and Blu-ray April 5, 2011.

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