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By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic
A review of Doug Liman’s “Fair Game,” a thrilling and surprisingly intimate look at the secret lives of Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson, played by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.
Doug Liman’s “Fair Game” is written as a drama and paced as a thriller, and it works just fine both ways. It tells a story torn from the headlines: that of real-life CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson (played by Naomi Watts), who was abruptly outed as a covert officer in 2003, after her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn, looking nicely professorial), publicly argued with the Bush White House over the investigation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Joe, a diplomat, was asked by the State Department to look into a sale of enriched uranium from Niger to Iraq; his conclusion was that the sale never took place, but his findings were ignored.
Caught in the crossfire was Valerie, whose distinguished 18-year career — a secret to her friends and extended family — ended in an instant. “It’s over,” a formerly admiring colleague tells her.
Though the politics behind the story are fascinating (and complicated), Liman and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth prefer to focus here on the personal. This is a marriage that’s guarding a secret, and the strains felt by the Wilsons are all too visible.
We see Valerie leaving early in the morning for a trip to an undisclosed location, as a demoralized Joe reminds her that “If you went missing, I couldn’t tell anyone.” Valerie pretends to her friends that she works in venture capital — and then, the morning she is named in The Washington Post, the phone begins to ring, with hurt voices behind it.
These aren’t the problems most couples face, and yet much of what makes “Fair Game” so effective is how normal Joe and Valerie’s marriage seems, despite abnormal circumstances.
Their two small children constantly pepper conversations with interruptions, as small children do; one crucial argument between the couple, at a playground, has to be carefully conducted around constant marshaling of the kids (“Go find your brother!”).
And, despite the pressures of leading a double life, we see moments of sweet affection between them: In one moment, filmed from behind as they walk down a hallway, Penn and Watts endearingly nudge each other off-balance, like the secret Joe and Valerie are sharing is a happy one.
Liman, as he did with “The Bourne Identity,” finds a jittery, handheld tension throughout; the movie feels like an action thriller, with conversation taking the place of stunts.
And Penn and Watts are electric together, in the Wilsons’ good times and bad. In an early scene, Joe watches wryly as Valerie tries to deflect conversation about her financial career. “Must be interesting work,” he observes, just playfully enough. Indeed it is.