Naomi Watts and Sean Penn star in political thriller Fair Game (2010)
Doug Liman is one of those chameleonic filmmakers you can never quite predict and certainly can't guarantee quality with. The Bourne Identity (2002) was touted as a flop after re-shoots and inside tales of a troubled production, but it went on to become a mega hit spawning two sequels (Greengrass, 2004, 2007) making it the kick-off point for one of the best trilogies of all time. It stands on its own as a solid spy flick too, and has smarts and action in equal measure. Everyone was expecting the filmmaker who started with Swingers (1996) and Go (1999) to flourish and move onto great things but instead he landed us with Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005; which spun into a TV series, the pilot of which was directed by Liman) and Jumper (2008) a time-jumping mess that left fans in serious doubt as to his talent. So he took a step back to tackle an entirely different kind of spy tale - the true story of outed CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) whose identity was leaked by the US government as an aggressive response to her husbands criticism of the Bush administration in 2003.
Her husband is Ambassador Joe Wilson and here is played by Sean Penn. As an actor best known for grandstanding and shouting it's nice to see him dial it down a bit and deliver a much subtler performance than we're used to, and he's on truly commanding form slipping back and forth between moments of quiet contemplation and explosive rage, the latter of which feels incredibly real and impassioned. The relationship built between him and Watts feels real too, which is probably no surprise given that this is their third time working together after 21 Grams (Iñárritu, 2003) and The Assassination Of Richard Nixon (Mueller, 2004). Watts is also excellent in the role of Plame, to whom she bears an airbrushed resemblance. She finds nuances in the psyche of her character and portrays a strong, determined woman ("You can't break me. I don't have a breaking point.") but not an inhuman one. Her marriage has cracks and she fears for her children in a time of paranoid uncertainty. Watts is 100% convincing in the role of a wife, a mother and a spy, and when the walls start falling in you really feel for her. On reflection perhaps the most consistent thread that runs through Liman's oeuvre is his work with actors, and this is the strongest case for that argument yet.
The aesthetic is quite dull, mostly existing in subdued shades and dulled environments. The DoP is Liman himself and there is perhaps a sense that he is spreading himself too thin and providing a disservice to his film in the process. It's not that the visuals are bad, but they are bland and don't really engage with the viewer - Liman was clearly going for a real-world tone but he creates something hyper-real, overplaying the solemnity with which he treats his subject. Indeed the film often feels too formal and far too much like it's trying to create a mood that just isn't there. As a further example of Liman spreading himself too thin, the direction can also be quite alienating at times - there's some really unnecessary hand-held camerawork in the film and in conversation scenes it becomes a problem. There are lots of ways to do a scene of this type - static tableaus, panning shots, shot-reverse-shots... I don't see why an obtrusively wobbly camera passing behind the backs of characters, or an equally off-kilter close up on the left of somebody's face adds to the feeling being created. Sometimes it feels like Liman isn't trying at all, which is a shame, because even in his flops there are moments of visual flourish that mark the film out as his own. In technical terms Fair Game is uneven to say the least.
As somebody who doesn't know very much about US politics I have to primarily praise the work of screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth who have crafted a snappy, intelligent thriller with real character that never condescends its audience but presents the complex intricacies of its story with a deftness that will engage and be understandable to even those unfamiliar with Plame. I knew a little of her story but this film was hugely rewarding in its detail and evenhandedness, and Liman packs it all into a tight 104 minutes for which he deserves commendation; these sorts of films can often overstay their welcome. It's nowhere near perfect but Fair Game is an interesting and entertaining drama with two solid lead performances. I wish it had ended a few minutes earlier than it did (that final speech feels a little sickly) but it's definitely a film I can recommend, especially when this weeks competition is Battle: Los Angeles (Liebesman, 2011)...