Sidney Lumet, director of both “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” used to say he alternated “glitz with grit.” Doug Liman’s recent directorial efforts have been pretty much in popcorn territory–“Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Jumper.” His latest film, “Fair Game,” about real-life undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame, whose career was destroyed and her marriage strained when her covert status was exposed by a White House press leak, would appear aimed at boosting his grit quotient.
At the outset, “Fair Game” is pretty riveting stuff. Plame, capably played by Naomi Watts, is shown in the field, doing dangerous stuff capably. Sean Penn plays her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson. Both are portrayed as intelligent and disciplined professionals. Plame discovers that Iraq has no active nuclear weapons program, contrary to the belief of many in the U.S. government, while Wilson, on a State Department mission to Africa to investigate rumors of the possible sale of enriched uranium to Iraq, finds no such deal took place. When the White House ignores his findings and uses the nonexistent sale to help justify an invasion of Iraq, Joe writes a piece in The New York Times telling his side. Shortly afterwards, someone leaks Plame’s covert role to the media.
So far, so good, but at this point our proactive, strong-willed and capable heroes become almost totally defeated. Moviegoers like their protagonists to solve problems but in this case the message the film conveys is that you can’t fight City Hall. Or the White House, as the case may be. And at this point, a tautly constructed political thriller becomes a far less involving domestic drama. We’ve seen some tension in the Plame/Wilson marriage, but not enough to make us understand why she actually leaves him. On top of that, the film’s tone becomes increasingly strident, which won’t do much to convert the unconverted.
Liman was his own director of photography on this film, and frankly should have hired someone better. The film looks washed-out, actually overexposed throughout. This may work in the Mid-East scenes, but even there the device is something of a cliche. The jerky, handheld camera work is also a bit retro. Handheld pans to frame the actors for every shot in a dialogue scene goes back to “NYPD Blue” and it isn’t startling anymore. It isn’t even interesting. He wanted his film to look a documentary, we get it, but this isn’t remotely cutting edge at this point. Liman has a good eye for detail but squanders it using outdated techniques that ultimately make us think he doesn’t trust us to stay awake during a two-page dialogue scene.
Veteran character actor Bruce McGill is almost required casting in thrillers like this, and is always fun to watch. David Andrews is pleasantly malevolent as Scooter Libby, frankly more macho than Libby has tended to come off during perp walks. Actor/playwright/screenwriter/director Sam Shepard is wasted in a small role as Plame’s father.
“Fair Game” runs 106 minutes but feels longer. Worth watching for its riveting first hour, it will nonetheless lose little on home video. It also opens the same weekend as “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1,” giving the expression “sacrificial lamb” new meaning.