Director Doug Liman atones for the pouty teleportation spectacular Jumper, which glimpsed Hayden Christensen chilling atop the Sphinx in a folding beach chair, with a bone-dry but capably performed editorial on recent U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Fair Game, adapted by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth from two memoirs, tells the story of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), the CIA agent famously outed in a 2003 Robert Novak column, and her retired ambassador husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), but totally absent from this talky spy thriller is the covert-ops chop-socky of Liman’s Bourne Identity. The filmmaker, perhaps himself attempting to go undercover as Steven Soderbergh, serves as his own fly-on-the-wall DP, telegraphing the earnestness of his liberal outrage by giving each globe-trotting scene the same kinetic ugliness.
There are few surprises in the story’s telling: Wilson goes to Niger and concludes that Saddam never got his hands on yellow-cake uranium and aluminum tubes for enrichment, as White House flacks, most visibly later-indicted Cheney proxy Scooter Libby (David Andrews)—whose interrogation-style spin-doctoring here relies heavily on known unknowns—forcefully insist. When the idealistic but bullheaded Wilson, who has a flair for getting in the withering last word in heated dinner-party debates, pushes back in the press after the administration ignores his naysayer fact-finding as it prepares to go to war in Iraq, Plame’s name shows up in the paper, effectively scuttling her entire career (and, in an awkwardly tacked-on subplot, leaving an Iraqi physicist in the lurch at the country’s border); Wilson ramps up his media offensive, despite his wife’s reluctance. In prime-time truth-to-power mode Wilson fields calls from Chris Matthews and displays an impressive photographic memory, citing defamatory quotes verbatim (Tucker Carlson said this, Andy Card told the Financial Times that) while he stews around the house. Penn, presumably drawing on real-life experience, credibly fumes as a talking head, but these media-blitz scenes are otherwise filled with stupefying details (Wilson sits down and straight off types the headline of his New York Times editorial).
As it chugs along, Fair Game gradually becomes less about fighting injustice than a couple on the rocks; Wilson gets exiled to the couch, and later Plame takes the twins to visit her parents, confessing to her father (Sam Shepard) in a nice scene that she thinks her marriage is over—elsewhere Watts compellingly interiorizes Plame’s professional and personal crises. But the two kiss and make up, and the film closes with Wilson addressing a classroom of eerily attentive students and Plame finally preparing to speak out in front of Congress. After a lengthy detour into domestic-strife territory, though, this all feels empowering in the wrong way, correlating a healthy democracy with healthy matrimony.
Opens November 5