Friday 11 March 2011

Spies like us: "Fair Game"

Director Doug Liman launched a major modern franchise back in 2002 with The Bourne Identity, encouraging a whole new generation of moviegoers to regard the CIA as a shadowy, monolithic organisation prepared to kill to prevent key truths from getting out of its grasp. Because it resolutely fails to spark as a sexy sociopolitical thriller, we might approach Liman's latest Fair Game, a rather too potted digest of the Valerie Plame Wilson affair, as a more grounded, realistic portrayal of the Agency at work; with its heated interdepartmental rows about the precise thickness of the aluminium tubes that may or may not have been used in Iraq's nuclear weapons program, the film aims for the quality of reportage, and risks appearing pedantic - in places, indeed, as mundane as real-life intelligence gathering must surely be.

In Jez and John-Henry Butterworth's script, each of Mrs. Wilson's field missions is represented by a solitary scene trying to give a flavour of the kind of information she'd been assigned to get at. Her initial inquiries pertaining to Iraq have been boiled down to interactions with one doe-eyed local informant - when presumably there were dozens of far less photogenic lives at stake - while, back home, snatches of Pentagon meetings and dinner-party chit-chat hint at the extent to which the Bush administration had began to skew the data, and the conversations that resulted from it. The Butterworths have an obvious villain at their disposal in Scooter Libby (David Andrews), one of the few members of Team Dubya to have been brought to trial for their actions, and here observed strutting the West Wing's corridors like a new Nixon-in-training.

At some point, however, one or more of the film's producers must have insisted we needed to know more about the Wilsons as a couple - and thus the problems of one Washington marriage are granted dramatic equivalence to the turmoil of entire nations, leading to one especially bathetic argument the pair have as La Plame (Naomi Watts) attempts to whip up an omelette. As Joe Wilson, Sean Penn is mostly understood as knotted, professorial fingers below a creased forehead and flyaway hair. Already a faintly absurd figure - on account of his character's fondness for polo necks, jackets and jeans - Penn contributes further to the effect by indulging in a good deal of Above The Neck Acting, screwing his head down at regular intervals to accentuate his chins, as though, in a film so concerned with The Truth, he was determined to get an exact physical approximation of Wilson - or, indeed, the totemic screen righteousness of Law & Order's Jack McCoy, laced with residual elements of Harvey Milk camp. His nadir is a public speaking gig in the wake of his wife's outing, at which he receives the kind of reception more suited to Justin Bieber than any real-world American ambassador. (Could Liman have not toned the applause and wild cheering down a little?)

Watts, an actress with a fine track record in conveying sharp yet vulnerable intelligence, comes off altogether better. A palliative, guardedly diplomatic presence at the centre of a would-be crusading, hot-button feature, she nonetheless falls subject to such silly scenes as that which finds Valerie hustling through a playgroup under the stink-eye of those fellow moms she's apparently betrayed in the execution of her duties - as though the worst thing about being outed as a spy is that it makes the school run a little trickier. There are advantages to the brisk, efficient Liman-Butterworth approach. If you knew nothing going in about one of the biggest betrayals of the Bush administration, the film lays it out for you in a clear, clean, concise manner - almost like a briefing for anyone who was too busy at the time to read the New York Times op-eds. Yet with its crisp application of dates to scenes, Fair Game often scans more like a rubberstamped illustrated timeline than a movie threatening to come alive.

Fair Game opens in selected cinemas from today.

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