Review: FAIR GAME - Gripping Thriller That's Both Intelligent & Entertaining

rating: 4

Hollywood has doled out more than its share of Liberal hand-wringing in recent years, demonising the Right - most of the time with ample justification, mind - as it pertains to not only predominantly American world powers, but also the Conservative media machine cheering it on. In Doug Liman's new film Fair Game, a convincing picture is painted of the Right media's massive influence over not only how politics is disseminated by the general public, but how their work can in of itself have far-reaching political implications. After his two roughest, lightest efforts to date (Mr and Mrs. Smith, Jumper), Liman finds himself back on terra firma with a film boasting the suspense of The Bourne Identity and the wise-cracking rat-a-tat dialogue of his best film, Go. Sean Penn's participation in a politically-themed film invites several expectations, though Fair Game boasts a more tactful, lighter touch than anticipated, and though it would be difficult to describe as subtle, it is a mostly well-humoured dismantling of the corrupt far Right. Penn's smug diplomat Joseph Wilson - essentially a more bureaucratic version of himself - laughs up the ignorance around him in good humour, while Liman is crafty and confident enough not to force us to like him despite the film's central agenda falling squarely on his shoulders. The laughs end, however, once Wilson is requested to visit Niger and ascertain whether they were trying to sell nuclear materials to Saddam Hussein. That his findings do not cohere with the U.S. government's panicked insistence to go to war kick-starts a pissing contest, in which the integrity of his CIA agent wife Valerie Plame's (Naomi Watts) cover is compromised, creating a dangerous ripple effect. Fair Game may lack the gunplay and set-piecery of a Bourne film, but with a snappy pace, witty script and two very good performances from the ever-reliable Watts and Penn, this is a highly entertaining globe-trotting yarn in its own right. Most engaging is not the tit-for-tat war of words between Wilson and the suits, but the superbly-observed, layered dialogues between the two political poles - a scene in which Dick Cheney's former advisor Scooter Libby debates the merits of action against inaction with a young analyst is superbly acted and penned with a Sorkin-like ferocity. A domestic drama of two sorts, much time is also devoted to Wilson and Plame's home life, and while so many films of this type try to shoehorn in the human element, here it feels neither awkward nor forced, simply because the grander political picture is so inexplicably tied into Plame's identity crisis. The intimate glances at her home life both before and after her identity is revealed, therefore, seem genuine and pointed. That the film feels emotionally warm while also conveying complex concepts - such as how grand ideas can be fatally misconstrued or lost along the chain of information - is hugely impressive. Liman also ensures to make a few keen apolitical points, chiefly that, in reality, nobody really knows that much of a firm truth about anything; we all rely on sources that, no matter how credible they may seem, are open to being compromised. Thus, the incessant squabbling and muckraking that occurs everywhere from message boards and dinner tables to TV stations is, at the end of the day, very much a lot of hot air. That isn't to say that the film shirks the notion of debate, but simply that who is right or wrong isn't ultimately all that important, simply that the debate is taking place. Despite the wealth of war zone footage, Fair Game never feels more exciting and at home than when on domestic soil, and admittedly the subplot involving an Iraqi scientist trying to escape Saddam's clutches is not as interesting as the whole, but Liman's lively, uncanny coverage of the Hellish landscape is undeniably superb. It lacks conviction and any real suspense, having the feel of second unit work, while back home, the urgency is so great - Plame's cover being blown putting several people in danger - that the third-act rattles by with a freneticism uncharacteristic for a film that largely consists of people sitting around talking. Watts may have the brunt of the heat head her way, but Penn's role is the more interesting of the two, depicting a crushing internal conflict, torn between two acts that both seem right in their own way; to protect his family or to expose a grand political scandal of worldwide implications. The temperament of Penn's character might be hard to warm to in his go-for-broke recklessness, but Penn conveys the anger and outrage with compelling vigour; it is nothing if not a passion play. While on the slick exterior Liman has crafted a gripping thriller, at its core this is as much a romance and paean to the ties of marriage. The humanity it serves up throughout and especially at its climax is surprisingly potent, buoyed by those two magnificent central turns. Presenting a discourse both intelligent and entertaining, Fair Game is a return to form for helmer Liman and one of the thriller genre's more robust recent outings. Fair Game is released in the U.K. this Friday.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.