In the age of WikiLeaks, the Valerie Plame affair – in which the undercover CIA operative was publicly exposed after her ex-diplomat husband Joseph Wilson ticked off the Bush White house by accusing them of lying about WMDs in Iraq – can almost sound quaint in hindsight.
Of course, it was anything but; Doug Liman’s skilful, well-constructed drama proves a timely reminder not just of one woman’s ruined career, but how a petulant administration abused its elected power with sinister intent.
Liman claims he set out to avoid the partisan divide of American politics (Plame and Wilson are villains in neo-con land) but, being based on their tell-all memoirs, it’s obvious where sympathies lie.
Yet Fair Game doesn’t gloss over its heroes’ flaws: the work-obsessed Plame (Naomi Watts) neglects her home life, while Wilson (Sean Penn) is an egotist whose bloody-minded bluster lands his wife on the shit-heap.
With much of Plame’s CIA activities still classified, the film has to play something of a guessing game. This has its pluses, allowing Liman to indulge in globe-hopping thrills and spin a subplot involving an Iraqi émigré plame sends on a covert mission that allows us to witness the nasty consequences of her defrocking.
The biggest minus, meanwhile, is that it’s hard to know where the truth actually lies. Watts delivers a restrained performance high on quiet seething and vulnerability, while Penn does what Penn does best: swagger with all his actorly might.
Liman, for his part, follows the blockbusting of The Bourne Identity and Mr & Mrs Smith with an unexpected twist on the spy game: a uniquely affecting human drama.
Liman juggles political intrigue with low-key domestic drama to polished, largely riveting effect. Great star turns, too.