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People complain that the government is full of “red tape.” No one can get anything done because of all of the bureaucracy and paper-pushing. There is a memo for everything from weapons of mass destruction to paperclip storage. The list of agencies winds like a maze and their list of duties stretch from border to border. It’s all a bit much. And Fair Game, a political thriller starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, suffers under the weight of the complexity of its focal bureau — the CIA.
Fair Game begins well enough with a tense opening sequence establishing Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) as an adept CIA officer. Watts doesn’t play stoic, which is more typical of a generic espionage flick. Instead she plays Plame as professional, smart, and loyal. She flashes hints of frustration, wit, and desperation. This film is based on true events and the real Valerie Plame should be proud of her portrayal as a well-rounded character rather than an archetype bitch with a gun or damsel in distress.
Sean Penn also delivers as Joe Wilson, Valerie’s husband and United Nations Ambassador. Unlike typical spy spouses, Wilson knows about and laments his wife’s work. Her frequent absences around the world are leaving bruises on their marriage. The few scenes they have together as a couple reveal decent chemistry, but the establishment of the characters is a bit forced. The writers often state the obvious while leaving the obscure open for interpretation.
Without reading a full synopsis, I would not have known what I had just watched. Fair Game is buried in political and agency jargon that is never explained save one acronym: “DFU” or “Don’t Fuck Up.” What is clear is that director Doug Liman has an agenda and some viewers will bristle at this. What is clear from the trailers is that Plame’s status as a covert agent is blown and journalists’ reactions to the matter run red or blue.
Liman makes a choice to include two lengthy dinner conversations between Valerie, Joe and their friends and neighbors. The dialogue is politically charged with Valerie remaining mum while Joe’s tongue goes unbridled. Sadaam Hussein, WMDs and pipes are the topics of choice as everyday people attempt to dissect the 24-hour news. Liman adeptly captures the intensity of Penn, known for his strong liberal leanings.
However, these intense moments grow increasingly sporadic until the known reveal of Plame’s name getting revealed in the newspaper. The movie rolls back and forth between unintelligible dialogue and forceful drama. After the revelation, the story falls apart. Stock footage from CNN and Fox news fill the screen, reporters harass the family and Plame’s colleagues turn on her. It’s just a hodgepodge of scenes jumbled together with no order or purpose. And this could all be concluded from the trailers — nothing new or interesting is offered.
Fair Game presents an interesting angle in espionage filmmaking. It balks at the typical clichés and offers a political thriller with adept actors and a strong supporting cast. But even with talent and a great premise this presentation can’t maintain its gusto under the weight of political lingo and agency jargon. The story becomes increasingly unbalanced, plummeting from a strong opening to a limp conclusion.
Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth
Starring: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, David Andrews