Fair Game is a well intentioned and smartly acted political thriller, yet it lacks the type of emotional pull felt in the best films of its sub-genre.
The many scandals of the George W. Bush administration has inspired many a passion movie in an industry which –let’s face it- leans to one side of the political spectrum.
With the Valerie Plame outing comes a piece of modern history, filled with the exact elements needed to make a great political thriller: drama, suspense, treachery, and a strong sense of right and wrong.
Under the eye of Bourne Identity director Doug Liman (himself a lifelong democrat who directed campaign commercials for John Edward and Barack Obama), Fair Game ticks all of those boxes. Yet this is a story that is just as much about a domestic situation as it is about the politics. Unfortunately, one works, and the other doesn’t.
Naomi Watts turns in a solid performance as Valerie Plame, a CIA agent in charge of numerous international covert operations.
When she is asked to gather intelligence on the possibility of Iraq holding weapons of mass destruction, Plame recommends her husband and former diplomat Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) as a useful resource to validate a key piece of intelligence.
Despite all channels coming up empty, war on Iraq is eventually declared, prompting Joe to write an editorial damning the Bush administration. In response the White House reveals Palme’s identity as CIA agent, setting in motion a chain of events that would test the mettle of this couple.
Quickly a David v Goliath story is established as the embattled pair fight back against an impenetrable force, and Liman does a good job establishing a sense of injustice.
However he also seems a little too gleeful in portraying many Republican officials as paranoid fear mongers, with one sequence featuring high ranking Republican official Scooter Libby (David Andrews) berating a CIA analyst, just as a little over the top.
Fairing better (of course) are the protagonists as played by Watts and Penn, both gifted actors who bring the gravitas needed to make their roles work, even though the politically minded Penn seems to be playing a version of himself as the vain, passionate, scrappy Wilson.
To bring that needed sense of urgency, Liman has shot the film in tight frames with a light shaky cam feel, yet does not go overboard. Authenticity is also found in the use of actual Iraq locales during scenes depicting pre-war intelligence investigations, and post intelligence war happenings.
The most interesting moments are those which focus on this working family, torn apart by external forces and inner turmoil. Liman effectively delivers the message that the lives of patriots should never have to undergo such dire straits, especially those within the intelligence community who give their lives (domestic, spiritual, and physical) to their country, for little or no reward.
Yet despite all of this, its furore feels muted, with Fair Game high on detail yet lacking in an emotional undercurrent needed to truly pull the viewer into this situation and feel for their circumstance.
By the time those end credits roll, the hearts and minds of all viewers should be touched and agitated with equal measure. In its place is the sense of a missed opportunity, even though a decent enough time was had at the flicks.