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Ten Word or Less Review: Good movie you already saw on the nightly news.

Movies which critique and scrutinize the Iraq War and the Bush administration look doomed to fail forever.  There’s an entire genre of movies out there about the subject by now and all are widely seen as failures, if not critically then at least financially.  While these films vary in quality what unites them in their failure is that they’re simply combing over material which has already been analyzed and poured over for years by scores of other pundits in other mediums.  The nightly news dramatized this stuff for us for years and still does at it continues to play out to this day.  At this point there isn’t much left to say which will be revealing or insightful about Bush and his dubious legacy.  Such is the quagmire that Fair Game finds itself in.  In and of itself it’s a quality drama with good actors, tight directing and a screenplay worth being read.  But what it’s about feels less like timely drama and more like a rerun.

Naomi Watts plays Valerie Plame-Wilson, the undercover CIA operative who was exposed as an agent, an act of retaliation by cronies in the Bush Administration, I.E Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and possibly Dick Cheney.  The crime they retaliated against wasn’t even hers, but her husband’s, Joe Wilson.  Wilson was sent to Niger to look for evidence of a sale to Iraq of uranium enriched yellow cake, a vital component in making a nuclear device.  He found no evidence of this sale.  The Bush administration chose to ignore his findings and in a history making speech, George Bush told the world a great big lie.  Wilson then wrote an article calling the administration out as a pack of deceivers out to push a war on the American people based on fabricated evidence.  His wife’s career within the agency was subsequently destroyed when reporter Karl Novak outed her as a spy in a newspaper article about Joe Wilson.  Fair Game rifles through the details of Joe and Valerie’s life as it slowly unravels.  Joe begins to wage an unwinnable war against the White House, but his wife remains silent, unwilling to fight against a monolithic system at the expense of her family.  It’s solid, well made and very watchable.  It’s also old news.

Fair Game stands as a mark of improvement for director Doug Liman.  Liman has been an uneven hand in his 15 years as a helmer.  While his crowning achievement to date was the first Bourne film, or Swingers if you’re into the hip thing, it’s largely overlooked now in the wake of Paul Greengrass’s superior sequels.  After that came the silly Mr. & Mrs. Smith followed up by the wildly juvenile sci-fi piece, JumperFair Game is light years more grounded and grown up.  Free of the trappings of a superstar ego gratification vehicle or special effects romps for tweens, Liman shows he’s a good director of actors and at constructing realistic drama.  Fair Game isn’t showy, condescending or otherwise compromised.

Watts and Penn are the stars here.  I’m not sure Penn is acting so much as using Wilson as a vehicle for his similarly held political beliefs.  He’s a stay at home dad who becomes an unwavering crusader.  His part is the flashier of the two.  He slowly builds up to unhinged outrages at his situation and refuses to back down to pressure from the crypto fascists pulling the strings.  Watts has to hold things closer to the chest.  Palme-Wilson had a thorough understanding of the situation, one that her husband refused to subscribe to, and it created a rift in their marriage.  She wanted to be the quiet soldier who protected her family’s interest, he the outraged citizen David throwing rocks at the White House Goliath.  While the political slandering being fired at them were well documented, Penn and Watts create a believable couple being wrongly ripped apart by outside forces.

Fair Game gets points for being an entirely respectable movie in many regards.  It’s simply unfortunate that it’s based around events which still feel fresh and fairly well known to the world at large.  In another time and another place Fair Game may have found an appreciative audience, something fans of investigative cinema would champion, but in the world we live in too many people already know too many details to grab any lingering headlines.  Movies are too slow a medium to make an impact in this regard and as a consequence fine features like Fair Game wind up in the margins of movie history.

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