It takes awhile, but Sean Penn eventually manages to turn Fair Game into a political tract.
The fact that he waits until the movie’s final moments is actually evidence of restraint on the part of the notoriously outspoken actor. After all, this is a story teeming with political intrigue. Based on separate books by Valerie Plame and her husband Joseph Wilson, the film dramatizes the events surrounding Plame’s outing as a CIA agent in 2003. The leak to the press about her identity came after Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador, had written an opinion piece contradicting the Bush administration’s reasons for going to war with Iraq.
Penn, as Wilson, manages to keep his head for most of the film, even allowing some self-righteous indignation to purposefully slip into his portrayal of the former ambassador. Here, Wilson takes on the White House without measuring the personal cost.
Aside from the striking physical similarity, Naomi Watts is a bit of a non-factor as Plame. Plame is supposed to be ruthless, but when Watts tries to tighten the screws on possible informers it doesn’t quite register; she’s too willowy.
Fair Game is best when delving into the behind-the-scenes machinations that led up to the war. Whenever things get a bit dry, director Doug Liman employs a skittish camera and tight close-ups to jump start our attention. It’s riveting stuff, and nicely woven in with real life. In the domestic scenes, their young twins are almost always in the background or interrupting the conversation, reminding us that all of this was going on in the day-to-day world.
Things don’t turn preachy until the end, when Wilson and Plame take their battle public. Wilson becomes something of a media celebrity, and so the movie ends with Penn lecturing a university crowd about the delicacy of democracy. The character of Joseph Wilson melts away until all we’re left with is Penn’s grandstanding.