Nick Nunziata: Doug Liman is back and he’s brought Naomi Watts and Sean
Penn with him in Fair Game, a politically charged intellectual thriller
based on the true story of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame. It’s a
different sort of film from Liman. It’s not extremely stylish, is filled
with longer takes and features very little in the way of short
attention span filmmaking. There’s no action at all, and the end result
is kind of an odd hybrid of films.

Steve Murphy: Indeed. I love that Liman was able to find a project that
allowed him to concentrate more on the characters, rather than
explosions and effects. It’s a great recovery from his previous film,
Jumper, which while having some interesting aspects suffered from a weak
lead and poor script. Not the case with
Fair Game, as Penn and Watts
are really strong here, Penn more so. In fact, I often felt with the way
the film was structured it was more Joseph Wilson’s story at times.

Nick Nunziata: I’m sure that was intentional, and it’s a great
decision because Sean Penn is phenomenal here. He’s an actor who is
almost always guaranteed class and Fair Game allows him to play a
different kind of role. A lot of times actors who have flirted with
being sex symbols age as slowly as they can but Penn hasn’t shown a
modicum of vanity for years as he’s bounced from roles as diverse as
the mentally challenged Sam to Harvey Milk. He’s riveting here as he
tries to do what’s best for his family while maintaining his ideals
in a very tough situation as the big issue of Weapons of Mass
Destruction issue begins to take shape. The main thrust of the film
centers on Plame’s very covert and very important work on a variety
of fronts as the government begins to figure a way to go to war, but
it’s her husband’s deductions that really set the main conflicts
into motion.

Steve Murphy: Here, it’s Wilson’s convictions that lead to the ousting of Plame, and during the turmoil that follows it’s his ideals
that are put to the test… not so much hers. To me this is where the
film felt like it split into two parts, in terms of character focus: the
first being Plames’ tale, the second act focusing more on Wilson, Watts
is still very good – she just had the misfortune of being cast against
Sean Penn in a role so perfectly suited for him it’s incredible. I’m
also not sure I liked how the film handled her once Wilson’s famous
article was published. Watts is so strong in the first half that when
the change occurs they kind of push her aside just a bit while they get
the other half of the narrative out. I wish there was a way for them to
have handled that a little better, because I really did like her in the
role; it’s just I kind of forgot about her in act two!

Nick Nunziata: Part of the problem is that a film like this has to try and create a sense of tension and Watts is saddled with the majority of the film’s burden of keeping the film in motion. Though audiences have proven that they’re willing to accept quiet talky films it’s a hard enough sell to get people interested in a story like this without the knowledge that the director of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Identity is involved. Because this is a Doug Liman movie it can’t be totally inert and though the suspense is toned down compared to most spy movies there are times when the decision to focus on the paranoia of being Valerie Plame detracts from the overall experience. Also, because the film does a nice job of showcasing Watts as a resourceful and cunning field agent it’s disconcerting to have her become so passive and stripped-down once her cover is blown.

Steve Murphy: Actually, if you had told people that the same guy that
directed those two would be doing this one, I’m certain they’d be
expecting plenty of fights, chases and explosions. It’s a testament to
Liman that he was able to manufacture a film without most of those
aspects, and have it turn out decent. While the script is flawed the
same cannot be said for the acting. If only the filmmakers had found a
way to have kept the story more focused – perhaps even dispersing the
drama a little better throughout – then we would be talking about a
great political thriller. Instead, we’re left with an overall
forgettable piece, notable for a great Sean Penn performance and a
really good Naomi Watts one. 

Nick Nunziata: The performances are good throughout, with David Andrews excelling as the antagonistic Scooter Libby and the ubiquitous Michael Kelly as Plame’s friend in the agency who gets caught in the middle. Plus, Nicholas Sadler’s in it and anyone who’s anyone remembers his legitimately fun performances as Mad Dog Coll in in Mobsters of all films. As I reflect on the movie (we saw it over a month ago), I keep coming back to Penn. This is a lightweight movie but there’s something so magnetic about his work here. He’s really become quite an amazing man, and he wears the years really well. It’s a shame movies like this aren’t the slam dunk they were in the 70’s and 80’s, because Penn deserves a heck of a lot more acclaim than he’ll get for this.

Steve Murphy: I think the material is so perfect for Penn it makes it easier for him to get his teeth into it. He’s highly passionate about the source material, and it virtually bleeds out into the theaters. Towards the end, though, there were moments where he cames off a bit too preachy, but there’s no denying the overall performance he turns in. Regardless of the actor, if they’re inspired by what they’re doing it comes through in the performance, and this is a classic example of that notion. The surrounding cast is all good, but he completely takes over a scene the minute he arrives due to his investment in the story. That’s a product of his political leanings and it has everything to do with why he took this role in the first place, but because it’s such a strong performance people need to look past that and admire the power of the performance.

Nick Nunziata: Bottom line, it’s worth it for Penn but keep your expectations pretty low. This is a decent adult drama but nothing exemplary.