Review: Fair Game


Ah, the ripped-from-the-headlines drama. Not one of my favorite subgenres, to be perfectly honest, but they’re not all bad. Certainly the genre has a higher success rate than sports films or biopics. In any case, I try to avoid the ones that are based on more recent events. Even when they’re good films (as in United 93), I still get the stinging sense that they were cynically made to short-sightedly capitalize on current events. What’s the point in seeing a dramatization of something that was just on the news? I have no idea, and Fair Game does little to answer this query.

Most people who follow the news (or listen to The Decemberists) are familiar with the story of Valerie Plame, a tragic yarn about an undercover CIA operative thrown under the bus by her own organization in 2003, effectively distracting the public from the untruths used to push the Iraq War. It’s a film-worthy story to be sure, a frustrating true-life tale of political skullduggery, but unfortunately Fair Game drops the ball in translating it to the screen.

Doug Liman is a talented enough guy. He’s got a few good films under his belt (none better than sad sack classic Swingers), but he hasn’t made a work of substance or value since 2002’s The Bourne Identity. And I’m stretching the definitions of “substance” and “value” here – Bourne was mainly significant not because it was smart or good, but because it was smarter and better than its big-budget action peers. Fair Game appears to be his attempt to return to the act of creating “legitimate” films with souls, an admirable goal to be certain. I can feel that the drive was there, but unfortunately Liman made the mistake of hiring the wrong cinematographer: himself.

Yes, Doug Liman is the director of photography behind Doug Liman’s Fair Game. Being your own DP isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the camera work is the single biggest problem with this film. The vast majority is shot in clumsy, distracting handheld digital video. The intention of this is clear: Fair Game paints itself as a realistic, down to earth sort of political thriller, taking time to show the banality of Plame and her husband’s daily life.  The handheld camera attempts to accentuate this, plopping the viewer down in the middle of their world, but ultimately ends up feeling aimless and lazy.

More often than not, the camera will veer in a random direction for no discernible reason, looking more like the person behind the camera is shifting in their seat than focusing on the action. Much of the time you’re looking at some sloppy shot where the characters are off in the corner as the camera has pointlessly deviated from its focus again. This kills the immediacy of the film, failing to do the source material justice. Many filmmakers have done well with this pseudo-doc style, but Liman is not John Cassavetes. He isn’t even a Duplass brother. The film should have been shot by a top-rate cinematographer, as it includes moments of drama that deserve and demand the hand of someone with more nuance and skill. 

In spite of this, Fair Game is saved by its actors and pacing, managing to emerge as a pretty decent film. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are good, as they often are, even if it hurts to see the impact of their stellar performances lessened by the weak camera work. There are a few mildly embarrassing moments (a scene where Plame glances knowingly at an American flag made me wince), but on the whole avoids being overly obvious or preachy. The story remains engaging and heartbreaking, and fans of political dramas and thrillers may well eat this up.  

Overall Score: 6.60 – Okay. (6s are just okay. These movies usually have many flaws, didn’t try to do anything special, or were poorly executed. Some will still love 6s, but most prefer to just rent them. Watch more trailers and read more reviews before you decide.)

Fair Game is an engaging political drama sunk by its sloppy handheld cinematography.