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Review: 'Fair Game' feels a bit lopsided

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
Naomi Watts and Sean Penn portray wife and husband Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson in the film "Fair Game."
Naomi Watts and Sean Penn portray wife and husband Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson in the film "Fair Game."
  • "Fair Game" tells the story of former CIA agent Valerie Plame
  • Naomi Watts stars as Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, former U.S. ambassador
  • Director Doug Liman is best known for "The Bourne Identity"
  • Valerie Plame
  • Movies
  • Naomi Watts
  • Sean Penn
  • Entertainment

(CNN) -- Imagine you found out your best friend -- a wife and mother, and an analyst in the private sector, or so you thought -- was actually a CIA spy. What would you say? Several questions suggest themselves all at once, but probably the most pressing would be this: Have you ever killed anybody?

In the film "Fair Game," that is not something Valerie Plame, played by actress Naomi Watts, is at liberty to disclose -- not even after the government she served has pulled the rug out from under her and thrown her to the (media) wolves.

In real life, the "Plamegate" affair broke in July 2003.

As we now know, officials in Vice President Dick Cheney's office leaked Plame's status to the media, a diversionary ploy that was alleged retribution after Plame's husband, former United States Ambassador Joe Wilson, complained in the pages of "The New York Times" that the administration had misrepresented intelligence about Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

At the CIA's request, Wilson had investigated a report linking Hussein with uranium production in Niger, and concluded it was baseless. By implying that his investigation was some kind of freebie arranged by his wife, the vice president's chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby successfully undermined Wilson's credibility. Plame herself was just collateral damage.

Director Doug Liman is best known for "The Bourne Identity", another movie about an American spy betrayed by his own. While it rekindles a legitimate sense of outrage, "Fair Game" doesn't generate anything approaching the excitement of the Bourne stories.

The first scenes, which take place before the leak, do sketch out the intrigue and jeopardy of Plame's covert activities, but for most of the movie she makes a distinctly passive heroine. Sean Penn takes a more dynamic role as Wilson, refusing to back down and taking on the administration in a battle waged over the airwaves and in the op-ed pages of the nation's newspapers.

While her husband fights back, Plame withdraws to suffer in silence. The movie becomes a portrait of a marriage splintering under extraordinary outside pressure, a study in self-righteous male pride running afoul of a mother's anxiety for the safety and well-being of her children.

Watts is the spitting image of Plame, and a completely credible modern-day spy, even if she doesn't get to shoot anyone on camera. Penn -- Watts' costar in "21 Grams" -- is forceful, a scorned patrician who wants his country back. But the role is so close to the actor's public persona that the casting carries a certain risk. The movie needs to do more than preach to the converted, surely?

Rather glumly photographed by Liman himself -- not in the ADD style of the Bourne films -- "Fair Game" feels workmanlike, earnest but a little dry and predictable.

Perhaps we've become inured to government corruption since the heyday of the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, but at this stage the film's "revelations" about the propaganda war that pre-sold the Iraq invasion will come as old news to anyone who's been paying even the slightest attention.

A more challenging and relevant movie might have focused on Scooter Libby and probed the convictions that drove him to obstruct justice and commit perjury (Libby was subsequently convicted on these counts, though his sentence was commuted by President Bush).

As it is, David Andrew as Libby lights a fuse under the movie with his bracingly unapologetic performance in a couple of barbed, aggressive scenes. But Liman doesn't follow through, and "Fair Game" feels a bit lopsided as a result.

That's not to suggest the Wilsons were anything but victims in this tawdry affair, just that on this evidence, they're not all that interesting.