Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Sean Penn, Ty Burrell, Noah Emmerich
Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes
Doug Liman has always been a director without a clear voice. From the unqualified success of his debut Swingers in 1996, he tried the E-Generation with Go, bawdy action comedy with Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Hollywood summer blockbuster with Jumper, and euro-thriller with The Bourne Identity. Arguably not even the latter worked, as Liman relinquished the directing reigns to Paul Greengrass for the subsequent installments. So here comes Fair Game, based on Valerie Plame’s memoir, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, where Liman channels Michael Mann’s The Insider. Plame’s status as a CIA agent was revealed by White House officials allegedly out to discredit her husband Joseph after he wrote a 2003 New York Times piece saying that the Bush administration had manipulated intelligence (some of which he provided) about weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq.
In the leads roles, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are the fulcrum of Fair Game. All the relentless politicking and procedure, as well handled and comprehendible as it is, would amount to nothing more than soulless fear mongering. As a patriotic hard-ass managing to keep a lid on her career of choice at dinner parties and such, Watts is excellent. As the dirty tricks campaign escalates against her and her husband, the erosion of her well kept façade is affecting and believable. As ever, Sean Penn is in VERY SERIOUS ACTOR MODE. With his glasses perched on the end of his schnozz and his VERY SERIOUS ACTING POT BELLY, he is everything you might imagine he could be when given the opportunity to stick it to the Bush Administration and their legacy of lies and genocide. He’s relishing the role, but that doesn’t make him any better of an actor. Penn has always been one of those actors that you can SEE acting. As he screamed ‘Is that my daughter in there????’ in Mystic River he was acting so very seriously, and as he bellows ‘If they yell louder, does that make them right???’ in Watts’ face, he is also acting so very seriously. Sean Penn will forever play Sean Penn and now I’m going to call him Yawn Penn.
So, we come back to Liman’s as a director. As mentioned, The Insider is a clear reference point as our characters lives are dissected by the hawks, bullies and officials whose lack of humanity borders on sociopathy. But as well structured as Fair Game’s narrative is, it is lacking the emotional whomp of Michael Mann’s breathtaking drama. A closer reference would, ironically, be Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone, but without the Parkinson’s camera work and high-octane thrills. The mood is one of escalating powerlessness as lowly CIA operatives are manipulated in grey offices, stamped with the outlines of removed paintings, as if to rob every room of any character. But as we pass the hour mark, the film reaches critical anger and has nowhere to go. As the author, Liman’s voice should kick in and take the film home with a satisfying resolution (Plame got her day in court and delivered a killer blow to the scandal that had nearly destroyed her) but that is almost an afterthought. Instead Liman piles on the melodrama and sanctimony without any insight, leaving the viewer just as angry, come the denouement, as they were at the mid-point.