It's no secret that movies addressing the central conflicts of the Bush years (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, counter-terrorist policy, 9/11) have largely come up a little short. With due respect to The Hurt Locker and United 93, both of which are spectacular as thrillers and as socio-political engagement within their respective historical context, the vast swath of the rest (including Lions for Lambs, Rendition, World Trade Center, Grace is Gone, and Green Zone) have been sanctimonious, overly simple, or completely disconnected with the human element of their stories. I've often heard the complaint that such films put too much emphasis on getting their message out that it drowns out anything else, but that misses the real point - that there was no anything else.
Fair Game is a perfect example of a good film that is also centrally a political statement. It's not exactly Made in U.S.A or anything, but it's as good an integration of current events into the mainstream cinema as I've seen. Its characters regularly make speeches to political ends, and the film has a very definite point of view, but - believe it or not - it's totally engaging for it. I don't think active political debate is off-limits for a fiction film, so long as the perspectives come from a recognizable place within its characters. As with any other subject matter, if it truly matters to the characters, it will matter to me. When you're telling the story of the events surrounding the Iraq War from the perspective of the people who were thrown under the bus for doubting its motivation, and you do it well, politics are important.
In tackling the story of Valerie Plame (played here by Naomi Watts), who key members of the White House staff outed as a CIA operative in 2003, screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth make a very wise, unexpected move - push it to the latter half of the film. Most of the film is spent establishing what Valerie does for a living in the context of the case that will ultimately end her career. Meanwhile, things aren't so great at home. She and her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), have a steady relationship to whatever extent possible. That is to say, he has no idea what she's doing most of the time. Meanwhile the government's combative responses to the events of 9/11 have shaken the angry liberal within him, and he happily takes whatever outlet is available to release this side.
Watts and Penn do the married coupled side of the equation quite well, though it should come as little surprise that unleashing Penn as an angry liberal allows him to wallow in the more indulgent side of his performances. It may very well be a totally accurate depiction of Wilson, but knowing Penn's tendencies, it's hard to view his shoutier scenes in a vacuum. Watts, meanwhile, holds her own in a barely-contained manner befitting her character, who proudly proclaims "I have no breaking point." The push-and-pull between Joe's active stance and Valerie's restrained approach to even the slightest confrontation will become everything for them professionally and personally, and the Butterworths establish this early and effortlessly. As things ramp up, so does their determination to stay their own separate courses, and this casual build is as dramatically beautiful as it is emotionally crushing.
On the nose? Perhaps. And the film does take unnecessary steps to get its point across, but for every cab ride Joe takes late in the film with a driver extolling the virtues of America, you get a scene as concisely rewarding as Sam Shepard's. Shepard is one of those guys capable of turning what in other hands would feel like a cheap shortcut into a defining, resonant moment (his work in Brothers last year was remarkable in this respect), and his appearance here comes at a crucial time. With a few words, Shepard has to save both a marriage and his daughter's dignity, and he does so beautifully. That whole scene is a small wonder, and due credit to Liman and the Butterworths is in order.
Liman has long been an underrated director, overshadowed by Paul Greengrass on the Bourne franchise and sheer starpower in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but in an age where a director is either a hack or an auteur, I suppose that's only natural. Liman's hand is simply one of confidence, and while it lacks bravado, he takes a movie about people in rooms and makes it compelling. This is no Zodiac, mind you, but one need only see Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps to witness even a master filmmaker (which Oliver Stone can be when he wants to) fumble such seemingly simple achievements.
I've never felt political discourse should be barred from the cinema, and Fair Game is a perfect example of how it can flourish in a mainstream framework. It's got the pizzazz of a good procedural and the heart of an angry patriot. And y'know, I like a little self-righteous anger in my art from time to time.