Fair Game is about the Iraq War: how we got there, why we went there, and what it took to make a public case that such a war was worth fighting. These are questions that historians and citizens will wrestle with for years, but they’re given no deeper consideration in Doug Liman’s film than you’d find in any mediocre feature in a mid-size newspaper anywhere in America. The film is set between 2001-2003 and is drawn from the memoirs of the two major players, Valerie Plame (Fair Game) and Joseph Wilson (The Politics of Truth), but for all its real-world trappings and consequences, it’s staggeringly lifeless on the screen. Liman’s desire to be a newshound himself is evident in the execution — he’s said he wanted two sources for every factual claim — and while that devotion is admirable, it’s also what kept him from seeing the larger picture. This is, after all, a film, and whatever political arguments it wants to make need to necessarily come in the form of a narrative that’s well told and skillfully designed. Liman’s film feels like it was made in a vacuum, away from a world where people grew more informed over time about the causes of the conflict. Is what happened in the lead-up to the war, especially to the Wilsons, less tragic for our knowing about it? Not at all. But Liman acts as if he’s scoring dramatic and political points by highlighting the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, when even the former president has now spoken about their absence. Liman’s first duty is to tell a story visually, and then to load it with whatever emotional or political freight he feels necessary, but the final product has all the spark, wit, and surprise of an encyclopedia entry. It’s meant to feel revelatory, but the only response it prompts is: yes, and?
Lost as he is in the desert of his own crusade, Liman forgets to do anything that will set his film apart from the pack, and as a result, it looks and sounds like every other modern quasi-thriller involving the Middle East. The repetitive, thudding score from John Powell is drowned in ornamental flares that alternately mean “something dramatic is happening” or “something dramatic is happening involving a non-white person.” When former ambassador Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn) is sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate claims that the country sold yellowcake uranium to Iraq, he embarks on a journey that’s intended to be the beginning of a complicated but arresting story about the means people will invent to justify their ends. But the entire sequence is poorly shot, choppily edited, and scored to sound like a parody of world music. Liman, who also served as cinematographer, has a love for shaky, handheld shots so passionate and blind it renders him unable and unwilling to do anything as simple as frame a shot and let the viewer get a sense of the physical topography for more than three seconds. It’s what Lynden Barber referred to as the “new confusion,” and it’s just plain ugly. Rapid cuts are no substitute for real suspense, nor are extreme close-ups substitute for excitement.
The screenplay from British playwright Jez Butterworth and his brother, John-Henry, dutifully trots through the lives of Wilson and wife Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) from October 2001 through the summer of 2003: Valerie, a CIA agent, was the one who’d helped recommend Wilson for the Niger trip that was being organized by the vice president’s office. That phrase, by the way — “the vice president’s office” — is as close as Liman or the brothers Butterworth ever get to mentioning Dick Cheney by name, which seems a weird line to toe; similarly Scooter Libby (David Andrews) is only named as the vice president’s chief of staff, period. The only conclusion is that Liman thought that to mention Cheney by name in certain scenes would be to accuse him of something for which he might not feel he has sufficient evidence, and though that would be an understandable compulsion for a reporter to take, in the hands of a filmmaker it just feels like a rubbery cop-out, especially since Liman showed images of Cheney in the opening credit montage (set to Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood,” which reached its U.S. chart peak on 9/11). Does Liman think that by not mentioning Cheney his film is somehow “cleaner,” or a better indictment of the men and women who led us to war? Does he think we don’t know who the vice president was in 2003? What’s his purpose: to mount a freshman-level political science thesis, or make a movie?
While the wheels of government grind toward conflict, Valerie travels frequently to Iraq to round up former scientists from that nation’s nuclear development program in an effort to bolster her growing suspicions that there are no hidden caches of weapons of mass destruction. Back home, Joe starts to feel burned by the administration and pens an op-ed titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” which leads to the eventual retribution of Libby through columnist Robert Novak, the outing of Plame’s identity in Novak’s column, the Wilsons’ struggle to fight a public relations battle, and I bet you’re not even reading this sentence anymore.
Liman’s film is so howlingly dull because we know all this, every last bit: there’s no shred here that hasn’t been overreported on every cable channel and in every print and online outlet in the past seven years. Yet we’re expected to gasp when Valerie’s name is leaked to the papers, even though the scene amounts to nothing more than a re-enactment of the nightly news by Oscar-caliber performers. Penn and Watts do their best to bring no small amount of charisma to a story almost totally devoid of any tension, yet there’s only so much they can do. The one compelling moment between them is not when Liman has them going through the frantic motions of portraying famous people but when they have an honest argument in their kitchen about the merits of fighting the growing number of smears being written about them. Wilson shouts her down, screaming his wife’s name, then wheels into his point: yelling the loudest doesn’t make you right. It’s a powerfully delivered statement about the decision to fight even when you know you’ll lose, and it’s the one true moment in the film because for a second the story actually weds character and plot into something engaging. Then, like gossamer, it’s pulled apart.
I keep coming back to All the President’s Men, the template for any modern film that wants to illustrate the cost of going up against the White House. The window between that film’s release and the events it portrayed is smaller than the one on display in Fair Game: the film bowed in April 1976, just shy of four years after the Watergate break-in. Yet that film has a timelessness to it that Fair Game will never have because it took a well-known political story and used it as a backdrop for a plot about two desperate men trying to get at the truth. The film wasn’t a dramatic recounting of Nixon’s final days, but a look at two characters doing things we didn’t know about. The moments in Fair Game that actually touch on Joe and Valerie’s relationship in a real way are memorable, but so much of it feels like a big-budget dramatization of yesterday’s news. For the most part, they and the other characters are handled so bluntly they cease feeling like people at all and become merely pins on a board. Liman simply assumes that the political and emotional cases make themselves, and in that way he becomes a version of the very politicians he so clearly despises. He doesn’t want to earn your trust or tell you a tale; he just assumes you’ll believe him because he’s shouting.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.