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Whether moviegoers even today can look at this real-life couple, extremely well-played by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, without the distortion of political beliefs is uncertain. Nonetheless, Liman and his collaborators strive to locate the human element amid the clutter of spin, hypocrisy and partisan rhetoric.
One can count on more op-ed pieces and political controversy when Summit releases the picture in the fall. How that impacts boxoffice is anybody’s guess, but the film certainly doesn’t lack for name recognition. Liman outfits the film with spy-thriller packaging worthy of his The Bourne Identity, so the film probably will attract above-average coin and possibly awards attention.
As is almost too well-known, in July 2003, the George W. Bush White House leaked Plame’s identity as a covert CIA agent and deliberately distorted the facts surrounding a mission to Niger by her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. The goal was to discredit a New York Times op-ed piece Wilson wrote charging that the administration had manipulated intelligence data to make the case for the invasion of Iraq. This disclosure ended Plame’s career at the agency and, according to the movie, jeopardized the lives of many of her “assets” — human beings overseas with whom Plame had contact.
So the film’s story — written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth based on books written by both husband and wife — neatly divides into two parts, an abrupt partition caused by the Robert Novak column that blew her cover. The first part, spurred on by John Powell’s pulsating score, centers on family’s life as an uneasy masquerade.
Even as Valerie (Watts) travels to the Middle and Far East, the couple’s closest friends don’t know her true vocation. So dinner-party arguments over Bush-era politics find the couple gazing at each other with Valerie never knowing when Joe (Penn), a hot-head when he hears misstatements of facts, will explode at someone.
This in itself is an intriguing story: How does one raise a family and create a false appearance to maintain a parent’s cover? In other words, this is the real version of James Cameron’s tongue-in-cheek action comedy True Lies.
Then comes Novak’s column. The media besieges the couple’s home, threats rain down on them and their children, and the marriage starts to crack. Her career is kaput, and his business dries up as the White House and some media outlets increase the drumbeat of disinformation.
Joe goes on the offensive, appearing on talk shows and university campuses to deliver his side of the story, but Valerie, a trained CIA career officer, remains silent. Each reacts with completely different instincts, but hers threatens to undermine his defense of the truth about their lives.
The movie pinpoints the turning point as Valerie’s visit to her parents. Sam Shepard, playing her retired Air Force officer dad, straightens her out about how loyalty to one’s country is a two-lane street. It’s overly simplistic, of course, but works well enough in dramatic terms.
The film crams a lot of material into its 106 minutes. Even so, it takes short cuts. High-powered White House operatives are caricatured, and Wilson’s crucial trip to Niger is understandably truncated. Events taking place over months and even years get telescoped into days.
But Liman does succeed in maintaining a steady focus on his protagonists. Their pain as the marriage cracks is palpable, and the film vividly captures the distinct differences in their natures.
Liman, who acts as his own cinematographer, situates his drama in a world in constant flux. Even before their crisis, both parents are constantly on the go. But within these fast-paced lives, each must maintain a facade that is essential to Valerie’s work. So there is going to be strain even without any leak.
Fair Game might be one of the best spy movies ever, even if it contains little skullduggery. Like a John le Carre novel, its story shows how things really work and how compromised lives can become when one must serve more than one master.
Opens: Friday, Nov. 5 (Summit Entertainment)
Production: River Road Entertainment and Participant Media present a River Road/Zucker Pictures/Weed Road Pictures/Hypnotic production in association with Imagenation Abu Dhabi
Cast: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Sam Shepard, Ty Burrell, Bruce McGill, Michael Kelly, Brooke Smith, David Denman
Director/director of photography: Doug Liman
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Based on the books by: Joseph Wilson, Valerie Plame Wilson
Producers: Bill Pohland, Janet Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Akiva Goldsman, Doug Liman, Jez Butterworth
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Music: John Powell
Costume designer: Cindy Evans
Editor: Christopher Tellefsen
PG-13, 106 minutes
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