Iraq. Bush. Al-Qaeda. Three things that a post-9/11 America is probably sick to death of hearing about. Mainly because, aside from the persistently hyperbolic headlines, Hollywood has spent the last decade or so wrestling the tricky subject of the Iraq War into cinemas. The result? Some good movies (The Hurt Locker). Some rubbish (Badland). Do we really need another?
Director Doug Liman thinks so. Except he’s no longer interested in breakneck action (The Bourne Identity), colossal explosions (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) or, uh, extravagant knitwear (Jumper). Instead, he’s taken a cue from emotion-inclined dramas The Messenger and Brothers, choosing to trace the war’s insidious influence as it creates rifts in family kitchens, at dinner parties and in office high-rises.
That those offices happen to belong to the CIA is par for the course in this story based on the real-life scandal of undercover agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). Leading a double existence, Plame’s involvement in the Iraq investigation between 2001 and 2003 exposes deep-seated corruption and a government that is feeding erroneous raw data to the press as fact. But when things get nasty, hubbie Joe (Sean Penn), a former diplomat embroiled in the scandal, won’t go down without a very public fight.
Splicing shot footage with real-life clips of Bush and his administration (the latter, naturally, often played for laughs), this is Liman keeping it real. Intimacy is key, as hot topics are debated over dinner and human drama is pushed to the front line. Watts and Penn are more than up to the material’s demands, the former extraordinary as a woman who just wants to do right, the latter striving for the same with all the subtlety of a bulldozer.
Just as Watts and Penn’s performances are typically focussed, so is their director’s purposeful framing. When Liman loosens the leash – such as during a brief Baghdad bombing scene – he does so with a heart-hammering, terrifyingly intimate approach, showing the action entirely from the POV of a man and his son trapped in a car. He’s also unafraid of fun visual flourishes, among them a nifty view of Penn writing an email from inside the screen. Unlike previous effort Jumper, these are mere garnishes for a taut tale that is never frivolously showy.
Fair Game only trips in its attempts to harmoniously marry searing government condemnation, domestic strife and a more action-flavoured Baghdad plot. The outcome is a film that never quite cranks the tension up enough, especially if you’re already familiar with the upshot of the real Plame’s plight. Still, if all of the Iraq dramas that Hollywood crafts in the future are this entertaining, we’re game if you are.
Anticipation: Not the ’90s Cindy Crawford thriller, but a back-to-basics Doug Liman who’s reeled himself in after the CG-overloaded Jumper. 3
Enjoyment: Fact and fiction snake together, but where’s the real tension? 3
In Retrospect: Watts and Penn are first rate as a married couple divided by their desperation to do right, while stylistically it’s top notch. Could’ve done with more meat on its bones, though. 4