Is there an actress working today who looks sexier in pant suits and ladies business attire than Naomi Watts? I mean seriously…oh, wait…I’m getting distracted. What lucky bastard is Watts married to again in real life?
As outed CIA Agent Valerie Plame, Naomi Watts is perfectly cast in Doug Liman’s treatment on recent history, the ponderously titled Fair Game. Oh, Valerie, didn’t you know when you wrote your book that there was a god-awful Cindy Crawford movie by that name already? But I digress. Based on the books by Valerie and her diplomat husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn, reveling in the opportunity to display his righteous indignation), the film depicts the botched build-up to the Iraq War from the point of view of a married couple caught in the crossfire. Wisely placing the event everyone remembers (Plame’s outing) in the center of the film, the scenarios leading up to this are compellingly brought to light, and the dramatic arc of the fall-out, particularly how it affects the Wilson marriage, makes for a riveting two hours.
Liman, best known for his kinetic action flicks (the original Bourne film, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and the unwatchable travesty that was Jumper) may seem like an odd choice to helm such a film, but it becomes clear early on why he wanted to challenge himself in such a way. With no action set pieces to work with, Liman is compelled to focus on the technical details (including his own subdued shaky cinematography, the tight editing of Christopher Tellefsen and the solid score of John Powell) while his two leads act circles around each other. The screenplay from Jez and John-Henry Butterworth nicely balances the political games with the near disintegration of the Wilson marriage and is tailor-made for a pair like Watts and Penn (who previously played off each other to great effect in 21 Grams) to do what they do best.
As Valerie Plame, Watts is handed her first great role since that of Kitty Fane in The Painted Veil. Again, she avoids the schizophrenic histrionics that had been her calling card earlier in her career (see Mulholland Drive or 21 Grams) to deliver a mature and nuanced performance where powerful emotions run underneath the steely veneer of Plame’s character. With a history of being snubbed by the Academy, this might just be the perfect role to land her that second Best Actress nomination. Meanwhile, Penn relishes in his part of the spouse flying off the handle and seeking justice. Though there are a few moments where he takes a bite out of the scenery in his typical fashion, this is by many measures his most restrained performance since 21 Grams, and I think the presence of a more well-rounded Watts is to thank for that. The two work in tandem with Liman’s restrained, detail-oriented direction, and they deliver small moments together (like Penn playfully hip-checking Watts walking down a hallway in the CIA building) that define their characters’ intimate relationship and ground the film in the context of a real couple going through an unimaginable struggle to stay sane and stay together.
Ultimately the films begs the question: Why did we allow the Bush Administration and the media to change the dialogue from, “Are there weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?” to “Who is Joe Wilson’s wife?”
Despite a hokey attempt at hope and patriotism in the closing scenes, Fair Game reminds us that we still live in a world where personal agendas trump the truth and the lives of real people play second fiddle to politics. In this context, Liman delivers his most interesting film since Swingers, and in a year of cinematic standouts coming few and far between, Fair Game successfully plays its hand as one of the year’s best.
Written by David H. Schleicher