The importance of identity is once again the leitmotif in Doug Liman's (The Bourne Identity) new political thriller. Based on the scandalous true story of CIA agent Valerie Plame's brutal public unmasking, and the subsequent White House lead smear campaign, Fair Game is as much an illuminating look back to the beginnings of the Iraq War as it is a chronicle of a marriage under fire. Plame's titular memoir as well as her husband Joseph Wilson book The Politics of Truth, provide the provocative source material, and both are brought to compelling life by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.
An impressively taut opening introduces us to Valerie the agent: personable, professional and perfectly in charge of her blonde, diminutive stature. We watch as she uses this to her advantage before turning into a cool, commanding operator. With faint echoes of Mr & Mrs Smith, Valerie then returns home to juggle her supremely demanding work in the counter-proliferation department with a warmly affectionate home life with ex-US ambassador Joe and their two kids. This hard won equilibrium is shattered when the CIA-commissioned report Joe has written regarding the possibility of Niger selling enriched uranium to Iraq becomes the vehicle for Valerie's downfall.
Fair Game treads similar ground as the other Bourne director, Paul Greengrass’, recent treatise on Iraq: Green Zone. Both concern themselves with the manifest lies told to shore up the US invasion, but where Green Zone unravels into a rather disappointing cat and mouse chase, Liman manages a much more satisfying intellectual rigour. This is helped along by the riveting chemistry between Watts and Penn, which is most certainly derived from their previous pairing in 21 Grams and from having already played a husband and wife in strife in Niels Mueller's The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Entirely believable and deeply affecting, their onscreen partnership wrings every drop of conviction out of Jez and John-Henry Butterworth's slightly overwritten screenplay.
"Democracy only works if you do your part," Joe preaches in a line one could easily imagine hearing from diehard advocate Penn himself. But the most striking aspect of this film is that it proves that the same must be said for marriage. So while the politics of what constitutes 'fair game' is undoubtedly fascinating, the private sphere proves to be a whole different ballgame.
Published on Concrete Playground
Australian release date: 25 November 2010