It’s interesting that both Bourne directors decided to make movies about the search for Iraqi WMD that was going on at about the time that the first Bourne movie hit theaters–and that both, though featuring very different approaches to the subject matter–turned out to be excellent spy movies. Whereas Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone (reviewed here) focused on thrilling, Bourne-like action, Doug Liman delivers an equally thrilling entry in the more realistic, serious side of the spy genre sometimes referred to as the “Desk Spy” sub-genre. (In this case, that moniker is a bit of a misnomer, though, as the protagonist does indeed go into the field. But the film’s most exciting moments are those in Langley conference rooms.) And refreshingly, in stark contrast to the Bourne series, neither of these films vilify the CIA!
Fair Game (not to be confused with the 1995 Cindy Crawford vehicle!) tells the story of a woman who, against her wishes, became the most famous American spy of the last decade: Valerie Plame Wilson. The story became a hot-button political issue sparking fierce debate on both sides of the aisles, but at its core it always seemed to me a classic spy yarn that could be torn straight out of Le Carré: a covert operative running dangerous missions in the field is exposed and hung out to dry by her bureaucratic masters for political reasons. That’s a log-line that with little tweaking could easily be applied to at least three Le Carré books (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War and The Honourable Schoolboy) and probably more. It’s the stuff of classic spy stories! And that’s exactly the approach that Liman takes to this material: he tells the spy story. In doing so (as with the best spy fiction), he tells many other stories too, and a film that begins as a flat-out spy movie very naturally morphs into a political thriller and a family drama by its denouement. In a genre landscape rife with popcorn explorations of spy marriages (Undercovers, True Lies and particularly Liman’s own Mr. and Mrs. Smith), it’s very interesting to see a fact-based tale of a marriage rocked by one spouse’s secret life. In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Liman used conventions of the spy genre to humorously explore relationship issues. In Fair Game, he achieves a blistering combination of spy movie and family drama. The former had a gunfight at the kitchen table; the latter has a disagreement that leads to raised voices in the same setting... and the stakes feel much higher in the latter.
Naomi Watts is excellent as Plame, as is Sean Penn as her former ambassador husband, Joe Wilson. Even before Valerie’s exposure, her career inflicts constant trauma on their marriage. Valerie’s ceaseless business trips to Kuala Lumpur or Amman, Jordan take their toll on her home life. Her young children ask when their mom will be back, and their father can’t give them an answer. Even he doesn’t know where she is or how long she’ll be gone, though he is one of the few people who knows her true profession.
Besides the intense portrait of a possibly decaying marriage, Fair Game shines as a spy thriller. The movie opens with Valerie undercover in Kuala Lumpur. These scenes may be familiar ones, but that familiarity is essential to establishing the genre before shaking up its formula. That genre familiarity is aided immeasurably by an excellent score by John Powell of the percussion-heavy, pounding variety with which he has redefined the sound of the spy movie in the last decade. It occurred to me watching this film that Powell is really the first person to do that since John Barry defined it to begin with in the Sixties. Both composers have worked within a wide spectrum of sub-genres, from outlandish fantasy (You Only Live Twice in Barry’s case; Knight and Day for Powell) to grounded, serious action (From Russia With Love; the Bourne films) to gritty drama full of bureaucratic hurdles (The Ipcress File; Fair Game), applying their signature motifs across the board. While many great composers have worked in the spy genre over the last several decades (and some have experimented with totally different sorts of scores), no one has so exhaustively overhauled the sound of spy movies as Powell. Barry’s jazz-infused style remained the expected and accepted soundtrack of the genre up until the 2000s (when it may have been partially done in by Austin Powers). Now it’s propulsive percussion–which offers somewhat less room for variation, but perfectly compliments the high-energy spy movies being made today–and Powell brings that in spades to Fair Game, signaling spy to the audience as loudly as Barry-like trumpet flourishes did in the past. Granted, the visuals and the settings do that as well, but in the case of real-life subject matter that could have been handled a number of different ways, it’s important to establish the territory as early as possible.
The scenes of Valerie recruiting assets overseas and eventually sending them into harm’s way deliver exactly what fans of the serious spy genre want, but as with many of the best examples of that side of the genre, the scenes back in the office are even more rewarding. Liman operates the camera himself, and brings the same handheld craziness for which the Bourne movies are famous not to running-through-Baghdad action scenes, but to meetings in Langley conference rooms! The constantly shifting, cinema verite-style camera work combined with naturalistic lighting really makes you feel like you’re there–and it’s harrowing! Fans of the Le Carré school of spy novels know how harrowing and suspenseful a good author can make the bureaucratic side of spying, but I’ve never seen the day-to-day business of CIA officers conveyed with such a sense of urgency on film before. You really get the sense that this is important work, and that lives and indeed the very fate of the nation depend on decisions made within these cramped walls. If the Bourne movies (particularly Greengrass’s–for better or for worse) redefined the way that action is portrayed in spy movies, Fair Game redefines the way intrigue is portrayed. If there’s ever a movie version of The Sandbaggers, it should be filmed like this.
Despite accusations from people who probably didn’t see the film, Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone managed to explore the WMD issue without becoming a political film. I can’t say the same for Doug Liman’s Fair Game, although despite the presence of outspoken activist Sean Penn (whose own extra-textual persona unfortunately distracts from what’s really a very wonderful performance during a patriotic speech at the movie’s finale), the director approaches what became a hotly politicized story about as apolitically as could be possible. Liman doesn’t engage in any of the games of speculation so popular among media pundits on both sides about how high up in the administration the decision to expose an undercover CIA operative went. Instead he sticks to the non-controversial official version of the facts, laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of the only person convicted of a crime in the matter, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and self-confessed State Department source Richard Armitage.
Libby is the only key figure in the Administration portrayed with any substantial screen time by an actor. The only time we ever see the President or the Vice President, it’s done using actual TV footage from the time–not cut into the movie directly, but playing on televisions in the scenes. It’s a tricky approach that could have gone wrong, but it works. Having lived through this little bit of history so recently, I also found it neat to see Liman’s interpretation of what went on behind the scenes of those well-known soundbites. He gives the feeling of filling in the blanks, which works well. In a bold move, he solidifies that approach by ending with footage of the real Valerie Plame testifying before Congress instead of Watts. It’s a jarring move, but Liman pulls it off and it serves as a good reminder that this sort of intrigue really happens, and isn't just the realm of Le Carré and his ilk.
Fair Game is an excellent movie that doesn’t dwell on the political debate fueled by the events depicted, but instead delivers an incredibly satisfying spy story and family drama. The lead actors turn in excellent performances that should be recognized come awards season, but ultimately what this movie will be remembered for in the annals of spy film history is the way Doug Liman (aided by John Powell) brazenly redefines the backroom intrigue of the Serious side of the genre. Fair Game is to Serious spy movies what the Bourne films proved to be to Action ones.