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‘Fair Game’ fades in final act

For its first 80 minutes, the fact-based drama “Fair Game,” directed by Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”), crackles with urgency and intelligence.

We meet CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), an operative specializing in the Middle East, whose husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), is dispatched on a mission to Niger to search for yellowcake uranium.

No uranium turns up – proof, Wilson believes, that the Bush administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are false.

What happens next remains one of the most controversial chapters of the Bush era: Wilson writes a scathing article critical of administration officials; Plame’s cover is then blown by the administration in retaliation.

The screenplay, based on memoirs by Plame and Wilson, glosses over some key details in the case: the protracted saga involving New York Times reporter Judith Miller and columnist Robert Novak, who were both leaked information about Plame’s identity, and the bizarre Vantiy Fair photo shoot that seemed to present Wilson and Plame in glammed-up Hollywood superstar fashion.

This might just be that rare Hollywood movie that could have afforded to be another 20 or 30 minutes longer. But what the filmmakers do capture brilliantly is the human cost of espionage and political gamesmanship.

Liman previously directed “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and in many respects “Fair Game” plays like the real-life version of that madly improbable fantasy.

Plame journeys around the globe, but can never tell Wilson where she’s headed next. Wilson, meanwhile, tries to balance his ferocious idealism with the duties of being a husband and father.

In publishing his New York Times piece, he was trying to honor his country, but in the process may have betrayed his family – a paradox that this movie deftly illuminates.

Watts, who bears a surprising resemblance to the real-life Plame, is excellent as a career woman who, even after being betrayed by her employers, still feels incredibly loyal to them.

For most of the film, Penn – basically playing a variation on the loudmouth liberal that many people already assume him to be – keeps it surprisingly reined-in, neatly capturing Wilson’s mixture of arrogance and determination without also making him insufferable.

It’s only in the final stretch that the movie runs out of steam. Part of this is because the real-life events turned out to be not especially dramatic: After much hand-wringing, Plame decides to come clean and tell her side of the story.

But the filmmakers also do themselves no favors with a scene near the end in which Wilson pontificates about the importance of holding government accountable. Until then, “Fair Game” is the rare political drama that doesn’t need a soapbox to makes its points deeply felt.

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