The game is up

An outrageous spy scan­dal in the Bush White House is the ba­sis for this in­ter­est­ing if un­der­whelm­ing thriller from the di­rec­tor of writes Don­ald Clarke

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THOUGH PAUL Green­grass, di­rec­tor of the sec­ond and third Bourne films, made that tril­ogy his own, we should re­mem­ber that Doug Li­man – a film-maker for whom the word “er­ratic” might have been coined – set the wheels in mo­tion with his nicely jar­ring The Bourne Iden­tity. Is this what clan­des­tine op­er­a­tives re­ally get up to? Are their days truly de­voted to stran­gling Ger­mans and driv­ing in­ex­pen­sive mo­tor­cars off bridges?

Li­man seeks to an­swer those ques­tions with this cu­ri­ous, in­ter­mit­tently suc­cess­ful take on the Va­lerie Plame scan­dal. As we sus­pected, CIA per­son­nel spend, it seems, as much time driv­ing kids to school and bick­er­ing over the din­ner ta­ble as the rest of us.

De­cently read Amer­i­can view­ers will al­ready have a fair ground­ing in the facts. The story was less well cov­ered on this side of the At­lantic, so a brief pré­cis is prob­a­bly in or­der. In 2002, Plame, a mid­dler­ank­ing spy (played here by glacial Naomi Watts), found her­self in­ves­ti­gat­ing the pro­lif­er­a­tion of nu­clear and bi­o­log­i­cal weapons. That job gained added res­o­nance when, prior to the Iraq War, she be­gan prob­ing ru­mours that Sad­dam’s regime was de­vel­op­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

Plame’s even­tual con­clu­sion was, of course, that no such pro­grammes ex­isted. How­ever, ea­ger to push the case for war, her su­pe­ri­ors – no­tably the sub­se­quently dis­graced Scooter Libby, then ad­vi­sor to Dick Cheney – over­rode her con­clu­sion and con­tin­ued to ar­gue that Iraq was knee-deep in H-bombs.

Plame toed the line, but her hus­band, for­mer diplo­mat Joseph Wil­son (Sean Penn), was not so eas­ily si­lenced. Fol­low­ing a factfind­ing trip to Niger, Wil­son wrote an ar­ti­cle ex­plain­ing that, con­trary to opin­ions ex­pressed by the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, that coun­try was not con­spir­ing with Sad­dam to pro­duce WMDs.

Here’s where things got prop­erly dirty. In an un­prece­dented move, a US State Depart­ment source leaked the in­for­ma­tion that Wil­son’s wife was a spook. Got that?

One sus­pects that Li­man and his Bri­tish screen­writ­ers, Jez and John-Henry But­ter­worth, had no­tions of cre­at­ing a con­tem­po­rary All The Pres­i­dent’s Men. Sure enough, Fair Game does fea­ture a fair amount of mut­ter­ing in cor­ri­dors and no lit­tle whis­per­ing on the tele­phone. But the stakes never seem high enough – the story is only a story be­cause of that un­usual leak – and the con­spir­a­cies never feel suf­fi­ciently twisty.

Aside from any­thing else, sub­se­quent stud­ies of Water­gate and more re­cent re­ports on the CIA’s in­com­pe­tence prior to Septem­ber 11th have con­firmed that the US in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, de­spite the film’s para­noid tone, fea­tures more fools than knaves in its up­per reaches. One can never quite be­lieve that Wil­son and Plame are in any se­ri­ous dan­ger.

Still, as a study of pro­fes­sion­als un­der pres­sure, Li­man’s film works pretty well.

The cast­ing of Penn as Wil­son is par­tic­u­larly in­spired. Few other ac­tors are so ca­pa­ble of con­vey­ing pom­pos­ity, self-right­eous­ness and pi­ous in­dig­na­tion. The script is largely gen­er­ous to Wil­son, but (whether con­sciously or not) Penn’s per­for­mance wraps in­ter­est­ing waves of am­bi­gu­ity about the char­ac­ter. One can’t help but think that this ver­sion of Wil­son en­vies his wife’s in­flu­en­tial po­si­tion.

Watts is, per­haps, a tiny bit too sleek and glam­orous for her role. But that char­ac­ter­is­tic fragility helps press home the pres­sure Plame’s un­wanted no­to­ri­ety brought. La­belled a traitor by the sort of ma­ni­acs who scream anony­mously down tele­phones, Watts’s Plame emerges as an in­tel­li­gent woman who, un­like her hus­band, only wanted to do her job in peace.

Fair Game re­mains, how­ever, some­thing of a prob­lem pic­ture. Not quite a thriller, not quite a do­mes­tic drama, it never en­tirely suc­ceeds in jus­ti­fy­ing its own im­por­tance. Even the most ma­ture adults may, dur­ing one of many lulls, find them­selves yearn­ing for a bit of Bourne may­hem.

irish­times.com/cul­ture

Se­crets & lies: Naomi Watts in Fair Game

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