Do we really need another Iraq war drama? That will certainly be the biggest question critics will be asking in the lead up to the release of Doug Liman's "Fair Game" and it's a fair one. American cinema has seen an endless string of documentaries and feature films on almost every aspect of the lead up, attack and current state in Iraq that the effect has almost become deadening. With the falsified documents, trumped-up reasoning and other failures of the so-called War On Terror now common knowledge and a cautionary tale, it's increasingly difficult for a feature film to find fresh insights and hit a new nerve on the matter. However, Liman gives it a go with his own entry into the genre that focuses specifically on CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), her husband and diplomat Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) and the lead-up to, and fallout from, the war in Iraq.
To the film's detriment, Liman assumes the audience knows nothing at all about the post 9/11 lead-in to the war and spends half the film building up a story that is already a national anecdote. After a brief and somewhat pointless look at Plame doing undercover operative work in the field, and an odd credit sequence that has the Gorillaz's "Clint Eastwood" playing over archive clips of George Bush and Dick Cheney, the film settles in, establishing the CIA's research, at the behest of the White House, into ties between Iraq and potential weapons of mass destruction. It soon becomes clear that any ties are tenuous at best, but that subtle pressure from the White House is coming down to make something stick. Wilson himself is asked to travel to Niger to see if claims about Iraq's purchase of yellow cake uranium are plausible, and when his report back says that it isn't, that still doesn't prevent plans to invade from going ahead. While Liman has certainly done his research here, all this background prevents from the film from gathering any steam. It's an hour of non-stop information, acronyms, walking and talking down the hallways of Washington's most powerful organizations and while the details are interesting and vital, Liman merely presents them and is seemingly unable to find any narrative drive.
But as the film moves into its second half and the sinuous workings of the Washington political machine come into play, Liman finally finds a foothold and film rockets forward. After Wilson writes an op-ed in the New York Times essentially calling the White House story a fabrication that ignored his reports, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby fire back by exposing Plame, spinning a story that she (dubiously) hired her husband. The news puts her numerous operations around the world in immediate jeopardy and essentially gets her fired from the CIA. This insider White House political game is fascinating stuff and when the film is focused here, revealing the disconnect between intelligence agencies and certain levels of the White House, it's rousing viewing.
Even if the film is uneven, the performances are rock solid from start to finish. Re-teaming for the second time since their electric turn in "21 Grams" (they also did, "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" in 2004) Watts and Penn are in top form here, displaying a chemistry with each other, and carving out performances that are measured and powerful. Penn, who does himself little good with his political public persona that tends to overshadow his work, will probably have his role here spun as some sort of lefty wet dream, but it simply can't be denied how good he is here. As for Watts, it's yet another stellar turn of the type that she seems capable of doing without missing a beat these days.
But, to circle back, did this film need to be made? As accomplished and great looking as it is (full points to Liman who acted as his own cinematographer with an almost seamless blend of traditional and handheld work; the latter particularly effective in the Iraq sequences) the film can't quite rise above being a well-produced, feature-length, "60 Minutes" spot. If you know the story going in, you'll know the story going out. The domestic drama that unfolds late in the film almost seems like an unnecessary distraction while we wish we had more of the inter-governmental maneuvering from before. There's not much in the way of fresh insight on the matter here and "Fair Game," in the end, is simply another entry in the wheezing Iraq war drama category. [B-]