After directing big crowd pleasers like The Bourne Identity and Mr and Mrs. Smith, Doug Liman takes a 180 degree turn in the politically explosive thriller, Fair Game. The film is based on the real life scandal of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Bush Administration officials leaked the agent's identity to a prominent D.C. columnist in retaliation for a New York Times article her Ambassador husband wrote disputing the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. With first-rate performances from Sean Penn and Naomi Watts and a compelling script, this suspenseful, taut drama should keep audiences nailed to their seats when it's released this fall. Debuting in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, a respectable box office haul, critical support and awards talk should make this an exception to the recent weak track record for fact-based political dramas like State Of Play.
A covert officer in the CIA's counter-proliferation department, Plame (Watts) discovers that Iraq has no nuclear weapons program despite the belief (or invention?) of the Bush administration, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney's office. To confirm this, her bosses convince her to get her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson (Penn), an expert in these affairs, to go to Niger to investigate sales of enriched uranium to Iraq. He does and concludes sales never occurred, even disputing President Bush's statements to the contrary by writing an op ed piece in the New York Times. This leads to a White House press leak that outs the top secret CIA identity of Wilson's wife, Plame. As the incident spirals out of control their marriage and professional lives are threatened and Joe takes his case to the public by appearing on numerous TV shows to fight the administration's PR tactics in disparaging the couple.
Mixing real news footage of prominent characters with actors playing other real-life characters, Fair Game has almost a docudrama feel. It was a smart decision to have Bush and Cheney essentially play themselves as the story unfolds while actors portray key players like Cheney's chief of staff and ringleader of the operation, Scooter Libby (David Andrews), and very briefly Karl Rove. One of the most interesting aspects of Liman's film, from a well-researched script by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (compiled from books by both Plame and Wilson), is the way it handles the fallout. The media explosion and mounting pressures led by daily must-have-new-news cycles in the 24 hour world of cable forces Wilson to go on a counter-attack and media blitz of his own, despite his wife's total reluctance and distaste for it. Penn is just terrific playing this bigger-than-life man who feels he has to defend his honor-and that of his wife-against those called "the most powerful men in the world," who are out to "change the story" once it becomes clear the President was given wrong info about WMDs (which of course were the reason the U.S. went to war against Iraq).
Watts doesn't get the big emotional scenes that have characterized much of her past work, instead she plays Valerie as a woman suddenly in a corner when her identity goes public. It's brilliantly understated and admirable work. Standing out in the supporting cast are her bosses (played by Ty Burrell and Bruce McGill) but mainly it is Penn and Watts' show, and they deliver.
Fair Game gets its title from Karl Rove's contention that Wilson's wife was ‘fair game' and it certainly pulls no punches blaming the White House, but it presents its case with such clear, concise logic that it will be fascinating to see just what the reaction is from the former administration officials it targets.
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Cast: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, David Andrews, Ty Burrell and Bruce McGill
Director: Doug Liman
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth
Producers: William Pohlad, Jerry Zucker, Janet Zucker, Jez Butterworth, Doug Liman and Akiva Goldsman
Running time: 106 min.
Release date: Fall