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. It 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 Go and the first installment of the Jason Bourne franchise (The Bourne Identity). Liman 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? A few more biting retorts that spoke far more directly about their feelings – the simmering love-hate-love brewing just below the surface?
Well, Liman got a second chance and in Fair Game, the stakes are actually higher than they were with Mr. & Mrs. Smith because this Game is based on the true story of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). Plame was a CIA operative outed by the Bush administration after her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), dared to call the administration out for misquoting facts he gathered 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 from 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.
He 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, rather, 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. (tt stern-enzi)