“Fair Game” is essentially three movies crammed into one, and two of them are pretty good.
The first movie is a smart, sharp spy thriller starring Naomi Watts. As Valerie Plame, she is a Central Intelligence Agency spy in the leadup to the Iraq War. She is very good at her job, and Watts does a great job of portraying a smart, committed woman is not afraid to go toe to toe with some very scary people. Director Doug Liman, who directed the first Bourne movie, brings that same “smart spy thriller” sensibility here; does a great job at keeping the pace brisk and the information flowing, and “Fair Game” feels like an exciting glimpse into the life of a CIA spy.
And then “Fair Game” becomes a movie about the Bush political regime and its Iraq War rhetoric, starring Sean Penn as Joe Wilson. Wilson, as you probably know by now, was Plame’s husband, and he did some intelligence gathering for the CIA as well. This is the “you should be outraged” part of the film, and that’s right up Penn’s alley. But really, this section belongs to character actor David Andrews, who plays Scooter Libby. Andrews brings a fierce intelligence and intensity to the role, and it makes a mockery of all those “somewhere a village is missing its idiot” bumper stickers. The Bush regime knew their rhetoric, and they knew how to play it with or against the facts, as need be. In one particularly electrifying scene, Libby makes “99% certain” seem like a risky gamble. This guy was formidable, and you didn’t want to find yourself on the other side of the desk from him.
Finally, “Fair Game” morphs into a family drama, where it wants to take a look at the toll Libby’s leaking of Plame’s CIA status had on the Plame/Wilson family. This part doesn’t work nearly as well as what came before it. I think it’s supposed to hinge on a scene where Sam Shepard plays Watts’ father, but Shepard is surprisingly flat and the scene is underwhelming. Naomi Watts almost saves it, as it’s clear and heartwrenching to watch her life fall apart before her eyes. But the relationship between Watts and Penn never really seems to go; up til this point, we’ve seen them both primarily through the jobs they do, and when they choose each other over work, it feels unearned.
I wonder if this is what working for the CIA is really like: life in three parts. There’s the intelligence gathering part, which is fun and exciting and sometimes dangerous. The political part, which is frustrating and occasionally terrifiying. And at the same time, while you’re flying to Beiruit and Amman and Baghdad, you’re trying to keep your family fed and happy, and that’s not going so well.
There’s a lot to like about “Fair Game.” It’s not a great movie, and its director’s strengths and weaknesses are clearly on display. But neither is it overly preachy, or terribly confusing, and those are big pitfalls to avoid in making a movie like this. This one might be worth your time, but probably shouldn’t go straight to the top of your Netflix queue when it comes out on DVD next week. It can wait.