Doug Liman is responsible for reigniting quite a few careers in Hollywood over the last few years. There’s Go, which helped Timothy Olyphant and William Fichtner reach a wider audience; there was Swingers- launching the careers of Jon Favreaux and Vince Vaughn; and of course there was the Bourne Identity, bringing Matt Damon to the superstar table while at the same time totally re-inventing the Spy thriller genre.
Of course, I’m conveniently ignoring the woeful Mr and Mrs Smith, because every good director has their off day ( Spielberg- 1941, Coppola- Jack, The Rainmaker; De Palma- everything since Scarface) but Liman is an excellent director. I don’t even have a bad word to say about Jumper- I loved that little sci-fi film, silly as it was.
He always brings excitement, interesting camera work and vitality to his films. The cinema verite style, shot through with a Hollywood budget, has been a winning formula up till now, but this trademark has been diluted by the swathe of neo-Bond movies and a whole host of young directors wanting to cut their teeth on spy/action thrillers.
And while his back catalogue is patchy in parts, his latest film expresses everything that is great about his work.
Fair Game is a well paced, intelligent spy thriller, which looks at the fascinating story of Valerie Plame, the ousted CIA agent who delved too deeply, and too high up, while investigating the origin of WMD’s before the invasion of Iraq.
Liman has crafted a far more adult affair this time round, ignoring the Bourne stylistic tics that are now hackneyed and familiar, instead creating a film more akin to All The President’s Men in tone and sophistication.
Naomi Watts brings integrity and realism to the role of a covert CIA operative who totally convinces as an undercover agent trying to infiltrate middle eastern arms dealers, and as a mother and wife. Sean Penn plays her husband, a consultant who is hired to find evidence of uranium buying in Africa to prove that WMDs exist. When he reports that there is no evidence, the smear campaign begins, ousting Plame, positioning Penn as a traitor and threatening to ruin their marriage and their livelihoods.
The machinations of dodgy White House officials is what is so compelling here – and the film is quick to point out that this wasn’t just a war based on poor information, but the whole debacle was fabricated convincingly enough to persuade the rest of the country it was the right thing to do. There have been many films lamenting the illegality of the war, but this film does it through real events, based on the recollections of Plame herself, making it all the more compelling.
The film doesn’t wax lyrical about the Bush administration, nor does it aim to witch hunt, but tells a shocking story truthfully, never lingering on the issues but allowing the audience to gradually reach a level of disgust with how the White House operated.
It never loses pace and the two central performances are superb. Watts brings integity, and Penn powerfully portrays a man trying to live up to his ideals, while at the same time, trying to protect his family.
Doug Liman has surpassed the Bourne Identity with this one. Now that the pretenders have aped his style- almost to death- he has had to evolve his spy thriller to great effect, eschewing the car chases for political intrigue. This is Liman all grown up; understated rather than balls-to-the-wall-action. It is the film to watch if you are interested in the WMD debate, certainly. But it’s a riveting spy thriller even if you’re not.
Sit back and enjoy it, and when the credits roll, you’ll be jolted back to reality (you’ll see), wondering how the hell the White House managed to get away with it. It’s the best spy thriller I have seen in years, check out the trailer: