<strong>BUSHWHACKED:</strong> Naomi Watts and Sean Penn star as ousted CIA agent Valerie Plame and <em>New York Times</em> reporter Joe Wilson, respectively, in the based-on-true-events thriller <em>Fair Game</em>.

When last we caught Naomi Watts and Sean Penn swapping chemistry in a film, it was in the sad, post-traumatic meditative atmosphere of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. In the new Fair Game, based on the remarkable true-life tale of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, the star pairing is viewed in what could be called a “pre-traumatic” stewing scenario, leading up to and working through the process of Plame’s “outing” as a CIA operative at the behest of White House connivers during the Baby Bush years.

One of the questions swirling around this film, in theaters at this historic moment, is this: Could the film have been made with a Republican in the White House? Apart from Bush himself, making cameo appearances in archival footage, evil clowns in the story include Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, lurking and scheming, enjoying the suspension of legalities and morality during wartime. Wilson, who blew the whistle on the falsified WMD ruse in a New York Times piece, and Plame, whose CIA cover was blown in the process, naturally emerge as martyred heroes here. For their part, Penn and Watts summon up the right levels of wits-about-them and righteous indignation (Penn leans toward the latter, naturally).

In telling the story, adapted from books by both real-life parties, director Doug Liman’s narrative ploy and challenge involves the delicate balancing act of thriller-like energy of the political-turned-military story, in contrast to the empathetic domestic life of a family, with kids in tow. The balance doesn’t always feel in order, anymore than Liman’s schizoid mixture of rough hand-held camera and slicker production.

Fair Game is part of a slowly growing wave of post-9/11 films examining the now-changed world, replete with its new game plans of intrigue, stealth, and danger worthy of a new genre of spy thrillers. In the case of the Wilson/Plame story, even a “just the facts” recounting would have made for an irresistible storytelling temptation. The real-life tale still strains credulity, until you pull back to view the often sinister, surreal nature of life in the past decade.


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