Fair Game (2010) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Fair Game (2010)

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Andrew INDIFFERENTIf there's one thing that pisses me off more than anything else in the political thriller game it's the righteously indignant liberal propaganda piece.  Green Zone, Nothing But The Truth, Lions for Lambs, all movies that distort things in such a crystal clear vision of black and white that they forget to be entertaining or enlightening about the subject of politics.  Fair Game, while squarely in the liberal camp, avoids most of these issues and attempts to present things with a documentary-lite flair.  It's not quite to my liking, but it may just be earth shattering to someone else.

Which brings me to an important point, after so many years of these liberal films do we really need another?  So long as there is something worthwhile to say, sure, but on a case that was as high profile as Valerie Plame's?  It's been fairly well documented what happened to her as a result of her husband Joe's outspoken skepticism about the facts of the Iraqi war.  So unless the performers enlisted along with director Doug Liman can find an interesting or new way to present the material or it's essentially dead in the water.

For those not in the know about who Valerie Plame is, she is a CIA operative (here played by Naomi Watts) whose cover was blown back in 2003.  This was, more or less, a direct result of her and her husband Joe's (Sean Penn) efforts to find out the truth behind some of the evidence that the second Iraqi invasion was built on.  The reveal came after a particularly pointed article listed by Joe, and Valerie was given up in an effort to discredit his work.

Another day, another movie about a strained marriage, another shot of Sean Penn looking sad.

The movie consists mostly of the build-up leading to that moment.  If you needed to be told about Valerie Plame's fate, then it may come as a surprise that the Cheney led team that shows up on the CIA's doorstep is pushing for any reason to invade Iraq.  It may also be a bit surprising that we went to war on the basis of no real evidence.  At the same time, if you don't know about any of the films subject matter then the plot probably won't be terribly interesting to you and Fair Game doesn't really do anything to try and win the audience over with style or emotion.

David Liman is a director without a style or calling-card technique to call his own.  He borrowed from the handheld action camera phenomenon for The Bourne Identity and turned back the clock to the days of Cary Grant for Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Here he simply presents a lot of static figures around large tables talking very intently on what they are going to do next.  It's a fine, if a bit distancing, technique that's marred by the fact that there are only two or three memorable shots in the film.

If anything, I wish that Liman had let some of the inherent rage and bias in the story come out.  Earlier failures like the before mentioned Green Zone at least had emotion to keep me interested.  Here it's just a lot of dour faces discussing a future that we know is coming and they have a pretty good idea about.  The inevitability of my knowledge taints the events I know are coming, and the overabundance of foreshadowing in the film drains it of any tension for anyone lacking in that knowledge.

Naomi Watts also gets to look pretty worried for most of the movie. Neither her nor Penn's performances are exactly stretching what they can do.

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts are two fairly dependable actors that aren't really playing to their strengths here.  Watts' best performances are all around characters that have a hint of artificiality embedded into their personalities.  Valerie's trade may be in misdirection and artifice, but her character is stoic and steady to the core.  Watts does a good job getting this across, but with little interest otherwise.  The same goes for Penn, who is great with characters that have outsize personalities or deep wells of frustration or rage, but here he just has to look sad about his marriage sometimes and then get angry at dinner parties.

There's a certain degree of note that I feel this production deserves since it did do it's level best to try and present the truth as they knew it without any specific biases.  But the very act of presentation enters into some kind of bias, and Fair Game's decision to focus on the actions instead of emotions leaves it floundering.  A noble attempt, but it lands far from any genuine interest.

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Fair Game (2010)

Directed by Doug Liman.
Screenplay by Jez and John Butterworth.
Starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (4) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I love your opening line: “the righteously indignant liberal propaganda piece.” When I first watched Fair Game, I thought Valerie Plame got royally screwed by the Bush Administration for her husband’s editorial. However, after extensive research, I discovered that this was not the truth. I wrote a short essay debunking many of the false claims in the film. If you would like to it, here is the link: http://21stcenturyfilms.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/fair-game/

    • Thanks for the comment Christopher, and I enjoyed your even-handed research and presentation in your piece. Propaganda is an important tool in persuasion but the reason Fair Game, Green Zone, and so on do not work so well is that fast and loose handling of the facts for heightened emotion that makes the films feel false. To me, nothing is worse than someone on “my side” making a poor case.

  2. Hi Andrew, I did a complete rewrite of my essay on Fair Game. Basically, I cut the essay in half, revised it, and just focused on one aspect of the film: George Bush’s 16 words. I’m seeking some feedback on it. Here is the new link if you have time to give it a read: https://christopherjohnlindsay.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/fair-game-2010/

    If there is anything I can do for you, just let me know!

    • Thank you for taking the time to revisit. From my admittedly far-left stance the points you stake out in that specific context work just fine – particularly in the “what Bush believed to be true”. Dangerously incompetent to me, yes, but he never struck me as a liar. So your through-line and research in that specific context is fine.

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