Walking out of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the film that set off the Brangelina phenomenon, I felt like the lone voice in the audience screaming for everything that was missing in that overly explosive affair.
The movie exuded too much haughtiness, relied far too much on shocking punches and double-barreled cheap shots and simply lacked the decency to allow any of the performers to develop a sense of character in their, you know, characters. It was Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw for the new media age, which meant the business was all about the behind-the-scenes show, the tacky and tawdry revelations of infidelity, the Oscar-winning black widow stealing the hunk away from America’s best friend.
But the real story, the one lost in all of the drama, was about Doug Liman — the director behind Swingers, Go and the first installment of the Jason Bourne franchise, The Bourne Identity, who had already displayed a real penchant for fast-and-furious filmmaking that also flashed a surprising degree of smarts through a willingness to play with fractured narratives and exposing the human emotion lurking beneath his thrilling heroics. I wanted less of the explosives and more of the banter, the potential he teased us with in those earlier films.
While it might have been cool to watch Brad and Angelina set their mega-caliber sights on each other and pummel their pretty faces into beautifully chiseled sculptures ready to cast in Planet Hollywood’s version of Mount Rushmore, who wouldn’t have enjoyed a few quieter moments of Aaron Sorkin-styled verbal foreplay, biting retorts that spoke far more directly above their feelings — the simmering love-hate-love brewing just below the surface?
Well, Liman gets a second chance with Fair Game, and the stakes are actually higher than they were with Mr. & Mrs. Smith because this one is based on the true story of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), a CIA operative outed by the Bush administration after her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), dared to call the Bush administration out for misquoting facts Wilson procured from an information-gathering mission to suss out whether or not Iraq was fast-tracking the development of a weapon of mass destruction.
Liman uses all of the techniques we’ve come to expect of contemporary thrillers —the restless hand-held camera, dialogue bleeding into scenes and the ever-looming threat of violence and torture to obtain objectives — but we know this time that, at least at this stage in the historic re-enactments, they are deployed to alert us to the fact that Liman and his story are searching feverishly for the truth, not some explosive moment of glory or cheap heroics.
Once the fix is in and the administration has released the identity of Plame to the media in retaliation for Wilson’s New York Times op-ed piece that exposes the false claims that became the excuse to drive the war machine, the couple finds themselves in the uncomfortable position of keeping secrets from one another as they attempt, in their own fashions, to deal with the situation. In these moments, Game recalls a smarter version of the Smith story. Plame and Wilson are fighting the same battle, in possession of the same truth, but are driven apart by suspicion and their own motives.
Watts and Penn don’t beat us over the head with grandstanding displays because Liman understands that this time we’re not here just for the Hollywood beats. Liman ratchets up the movement, or the sense of it, to create narrative tension in a story we know and relate to more as a piece of reported news, probably from one end of the political spectrum or the other, which means we know more about the opinions of the media commentators than the real truth.
Interestingly, though, it is not the job of Fair Game to present the truth either, and this is exactly what Liman gets right: The film lets us know that the truth is out there, still largely unknown, and it is up to us to find it for ourselves. And, thankfully, no other drama gets in the way this time. Grade: A-
Opens Nov. 19. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.