Before jetting back to Britain, the last film I saw on the Croisette was the early morning screening of Doug Liman’s political biopic Fair Game, which I had billed as one of the highlights of the whole schedule when it was first announced.
Fair Game is ostensibly an amalgamation of the lengthily-titled memoirs of Valerie Plame (Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House )and Joseph C Wilson (The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity: A Diplomat’s Memoir). Both books chronicle the events surrounding the Plame Affair (or Plamegate as the media came to call it): the identification of Plame as a covert CIA field officer, which had formerly been classified information. The disclosure was made in a newspaper column written by Robert Novak in 2003, supposedly leaked by members of the Bush administration as a direct response to Plame’s husbands’ article “What I Didn’t Find in Africa” from The New York Times a week before.
In the article, Wilson detailed his findings when sent to Niger to verify some information pertaining to possible African involvement in Iraq’s alleged acquisition of WMDs, and then accused the American and British governments of manipulating his findings to suit their own needs. Attempts were made subsequently to publicly discredited him, as well as his wife’s burning, and Wilson spent the next months attempting to make the government accountable for their actions in placing his wife in danger, calling for them to be punished for what was the serious crime of outing his wife.
To say the historical events offer a fantastic amount of compelling information with which to make an intriguing political thriller would be to underestimate them dramatically.
Fair Game charts Plame’s (Naomi Watts) final missions as a covert agent, as well as Wilson’s (Sean Penn) trip to Niger and the subsequent events following the publication of his article in the New York Times, as Wilson publicly campaigned against the governments actions. The film marries Liman’s ability to present political intrigue on screen (largely in his role behind the Bourne franchise), with a more unfamiliar tender humanist aspect as Plame and Wilson struggle to survive the ordeal, and save their own consequently failing marriage.
On paper, it definitely reads well, and for the most part, the film is very good (provided you like the kind of wordy political intrigue genre that this clearly falls into). And, thankfully, I do.
However, I simply do not believe Naomi Watts as a leading actor here (in fact aside from Eastern Promises, I struggle to think of any of her roles I have really enjoyed at all). I find that she wrestles with parts and mostly looks apathetic at best (though fans would call it an affected coolness), unable to ever capture my empathy so I feel painfully detached from her action. Even the opportunity to see Watts in a diverse a pair of films as Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Liman’s Fair Game did not stir a better reaction to her work (despite my attempt at objectiveness). Watts always looks slightly disinterested to me, especially in parts of Fair Game, and for a film ostensibly dedicated to her character, and thus a fair amount of responsibility falling on the shoulders of her performance, she seems oddly absent for a big portion of the film.
Sean Penn, on the other hand, is typically on form, unfortunately often making Watts’ sometime emotional ambivalence (which admittedly may be a badly handled attempt at stoicism) all the more grating. Penn ambles through his performance, never tested by any kind of emotional dynamic between himself and his wife that would have made their emotional plight more compelling.
The element of Doug Liman’s fanclub who will come to Fair Game because of the director’s association with the Bourne franchise may well be disappointed by the relative self-restraint he shows here. Obviously restricted by the biopic tag and the necessary diligence to facts, Liman’s work here lacks flair and he struggles to make the humanist concerns of the central relationship between Naomi Watts and Sean Penn matter to the audience enough. The overall effect is a fairly disjointed film with a serious lack of an emotional heart in the second half.
In all honesty, the way the humanist element of the final third or so of the film is handled, it feels entirely superfluous, and I might have been more warmed by more concern with the political side of events. But then, Fair Game is flawed by more wrong directorial decisions than just that, to the extent that the potential suggested at the outset rarely comes close to being realised.
There is also a problem with Liman’s handling of plot (a quasi-Oliver Stone tale of underhand governmental influence) which is driven by the supposedly impenetrable government body which closes ranks under pressure. The way I see it, Liman had the opportunity to play this card in one of two ways, and sadly he chose the less affecting of the options. Rather than maintaining governmental invisibility and building a sense of claustrophobic suspense, channelling a Hitchcockian vibe of the malignant removed institution playing normal people like powerless pawns, Liman chose to give the antagonists screen time. This robbed the film of a greater sense of suspense that would have made it truly compelling viewing, and I could have been talking here about one of the best political thrillers I had seen in a while.
As it is, in his filmic attempt to make the Bush administration more obviously accountable (remember my Stone reference), Liman moves away from mechanisms of suspense and subversion, and goes for a clean, obvious presentation that might be more damning, but is incredibly less entertaining.
As I said, the narrative also looks unfortunately split, making the film less successful. With Watts’ Plame largely a voyeur to her own story, and the powerful heart of the story falling to Sean Penn, the film has two distinct, disjointed phases. The sequences at the start where Plame is still in the field, attempting to help a group of Iraqi scientists escape the country work very well (and indeed are Watts’ strongest of the film), while at the same time the moral dilemma, and outrage facing her husband offer an equally compelling balance. However, when Wilson publishes his article in the NY Times, the grip of the film oddly wavers and fails a little. It seems the problem falls with both Watts’ performance, and Liman’s relative struggle to portray simple humanist concerns like the collapse of a relationship. Wilson’s plight remains compelling, but his performance is robbed of its balance, as Watts’ Plame choosing to internalise her turmoil and the actor’s inability to really convey it adequately, and the film essentially loses its emotional heart.
Fair Game, is not a terrible film- there are some excellent visual sequences, as well as a typically accomplished Sean Penn performance- but nor is it great. For its merits, the film suffers from a too-weak Naomi Watts performance, and a few directorial decisions that could have made it excellent. The potential was there, but sadly the follow-through simply wasnt.
I professed concern going into the festival that the political thriller as a genre would continue to struggle to find an audience willing to spend a lot at the Box Office, and sadly Fair Game is likely to continue that trend.