Although director Doug Liman was removed from the Bourne Identity franchise after clashing with studio brass, his opening installment in the trilogy set the template for the contemporary espionage thriller. Then he turned that template inside out with Mr. & Mrs. Smith, slapping on a coat of high-gloss paint and trading muscular realism for stylized satire. With Fair Game, he takes a another crack at the life of a spy, only this time, there are no martial-arts battles, and the only shots fired are in the press. Super-soldiers and seductive assassins give way to the domestic discord between CIA operative Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) whose marriage and devotion to their country are tested when the Bush administration blows Plame’s cover as revenge for Wilson’s contention that claims of an active nuclear-weapons program in Iraq are greatly overstated, if not wholly baseless.
Especially after the deliberate juvenilia of Jumper, Fair Game is a striking departure for Liman, and it finds his filmmaking maturing alongside his subject matter. Perhaps that’s in part because he’s been letting his fun-loving side run rampant on USA’s Covert Affairs, a relatively lightweight series that also balances a spy’s thrilling exploits and mundane home life. (Not surprisingly, the CIA is more fond of the show than the movie; Liman was allowed to do research inside the Agency, but only in the window between Covert Affairs’ green-light and the announcement of Fair Game.) A few weeks before Fair Game’s opening, Liman got on the phone with The A.V. Club to talk about his personal connection to government skullduggery, why shooting Watts and Penn’s marital spats was the most stressful thing he’s done, and how Fair Game made him realize just how “ridiculous” the Bourne franchise is.
The A.V. Club: Your father, Arthur Liman, was chief counsel for the Iran-Contra investigation and investigated the Attica prison riot, which turns up in your work in interesting ways. You actually based the structure of the Treadstone project in The Bourne Identity on the workings of Iran-contra rather than anything in Robert Ludlum’s novel. And now you’ve made a movie that climaxes with Valerie Plame taking the stand in front of a congressional committee.
Doug Liman: That is not a coincidence.
AVC: Was that part of your interest in this story?
DL: My initial involvement in this movie didn’t come from a place of politics, even though I have that in my background. It came because a British playwright named Jez Butterworth and his brother sent me a screenplay. They had already written a first draft of this movie, and I fell in love with the character Valerie Plame, and I fell in love with the character Joe Wilson, who are really two of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, in that they’re married to each other and couldn’t be more different. My father runs an investigation of Iran-Contra, it’s about, “We’re going to find out everyone who did something bad.” I came at this with the idea, “I’m going to talk about two people who did something great.” That really was my starting place. But I also brought with it the history of my father’s involvement in Washington. That made me work extra-hard to treat this like an actual investigation, and make sure I had two sources for every fact that’s in the movie. Obviously ending with a congressional investigation is really an homage to my father; it’s just one of the images that makes up my psyche. My father’s congressional investigation is as integral a part of my life as anything. As a psychiatrist, I can see why I gravitated toward doing that. The bottom line was I was using every tool I had in my toolbox to tell this story in the most compelling way possible.
AVC: Sticking to the standards of a real-life investigation has its advantages, but it also holds the movie back in some places. You detail Scooter Libby’s involvement in the Valerie Plame affair, and Karl Rove makes a brief appearance, but Dick Cheney is never even mentioned by name. No one’s been able to prove he was involved in leaking Plame’s name to the press, but every indication suggests he was at least aware of it.
DL: I know in my bones there were people involved in this that I do not mention in the movie as being involved. I’m 100 percent certain, but I have no facts to back that up, and this is a movie about a president of the United States who was 100 percent certain that there were WMDs in Iraq with no facts to back it up. In fact, it’s also a story about Joe Wilson being sent to Niger and coming back and being 100 percent certain there are no WMDs. So you have a president of the United States who’s 100 percent certain there are WMDs and doesn’t really care that the facts don’t support it, and you have somebody on the other side who went to Niger and came back 100 percent certain that Iraq was not trying to build a nuclear weapon. So I wasn’t going to make the same mistake those two people made.
AVC: The language you’re using parallels the scene in the film where Libby is trying to wear down a CIA analyst who says there are no WMD in Iraq. “Are you 95 percent certain? 98 percent certain?”
DL: It’s called the 1 percent doctrine or something.
AVC: The CIA’s response is that the terminology makes no sense. It isn’t math. It’s an interpretive art as much as a science, subject to the same limitations.
DL: Valerie Plame in the movie explains to Joe Wilson, “You came back from Niger with an opinion. That is your opinion. That is not the truth. There’s a difference between the two.” I did everything in my power to follow Valerie Plame’s words to her husband and separate out what’s my opinion and what is the truth—the standards the CIA would itself use.
AVC: One of the fascinating things about the movie is watching the language mutate and soften over time. We go from the CIA saying the infamous aluminum tubes are the wrong kind to be used to refine nuclear material to various Bush administration figures saying there’s a possibility, then a probability, and finally that they flat-out are the kind used in such procedures. The certainty amps up and up in response to political exigency rather than anything to do with the data.
DL: We also showed an enormous amount of restraint. I had a journalist ask me, “Is it really true that Scooter Libby was meeting with junior analysts at the CIA?” It was like, “Well, honestly, Dick Cheney also sat in on some of those meetings.” I retreated from the line and put myself in solidly defensible positions on every allegation of this movie. I had more ammo that I held back on.
AVC: Sean Penn and Naomi Watts are bona fide movie stars, but you cast Scooter Libby and Karl Rove with very fine but much less well-known actors. Is that deliberate in the sense of people not bringing other associations to those roles?
DL: I wanted those characters to feel as honest as possible. I didn’t want it to be “Oh, here’s someone playing Scooter Libby.” I wanted you feel like that is Scooter Libby. And we found phenomenal actors to play those parts. We actually did also meet with famous actors to play those roles. In fact, we had somebody very famous desperately wanting to play Scooter Libby. We had discussions about whether it would be better for the movie, because Scooter Libby is the third leg of the tripod, to have somebody with equal star power as Sean and Naomi. We ultimately said to ourselves, the actor who did it gave such a phenomenal audition that we should cast him because he’s so, so good. You obviously bring up a point that was a heated debate, especially because Jez Butterworth was worried that without a movie star in Scooter Libby’s role, how would the five-minute scene survive?
I know from other movies that I’ve done, if you have movie stars, you can only cut away from them to day players, for short, short amounts of time. The audience wants desperately to go back to movie stars. Even The Bourne Identity. I have amazing scenes with Chris Cooper that I had to put on the cutting-room floor, because the audience just didn’t want to be away from Matt Damon that long, no matter how compelling the scenes were. Had it been, instead of Chris Cooper, had it been George Clooney, I could have cut away longer.
AVC: You’re saying in a sense that the quality of the other performance doesn’t matter. People want to watch stars.
DL: Well, no, in this case, I was right, because every second of the scene with David Andrews survived. The audience was in fact willing to leave Sean Penn and Naomi Watts.
AVC: Maybe there’s an added degree of tolerance because David Andrews is playing a real person. The audience may not know him, but they know Scooter Libby.
AVC: You’ve talked about finding previous movies in the process of making them, working in a fairly catch-as-catch-can style. How does that square with the desire to keep Fair Game rigorously close to the truth?
DL: This was a much more controlled process, but on the other hand, it still has the same level of chaos and discovery in the scenes with Sean and Naomi in the house. In fact, this film took me to some of the scariest places I’ve ever had to go as a filmmaker. And I’m not talking about Baghdad, where we did go, and it was pretty scary. I’m talking about the intimate scenes between Sean and Naomi in the house. That was a first for me. It was as stressful as anything I did on The Bourne Identity.
AVC: You mentioned in an interview a few years ago that you wanted to do work with more political content, and you thought TV would be a better place for that. Did your experience with Fair Game and Covert Affairs bear that out?
DL: It turns out that it’s easier to do politics in a movie. People really don’t want it in their TV. What I really found was that the one similarity between Covert Affairs and Fair Game is a deep love and admiration and fascination with the home life of a spy. How does a marriage work with two young twins? The wife is gone away on a business trip, and she can’t tell her husband where she’s going or when she’s going to be back, and he needs to know whether he should hire the nanny or not. Covert Affairs is basically about a young Valerie Plame. It’s about the first day that you lie to your sister. I became fascinated with what it’s like to come home after a day at the quote-unquote office.
AVC: You’re also dealing with mundane, relatable domestic concerns, like how much money is coming into the house, and how can Joe work when he doesn’t know when his wife might up and leave?
DL: When I was shooting The Bourne Identity, I had a mantra: “How come you never see James Bond pay a phone bill?” It sounds trite, but it became the foundation of that franchise. We’re going to show spies in the real world. Once I started to get involved in Fair Game, I realized how ridiculous The Bourne Identity was. It was real compared to those other movies. I found doing The Bourne Identity that the more real I got, the more interesting the story got. When I’d see my father’s work in Washington D.C., I said, “Wow, the real stuff the CIA’s doing, and these real spies, are so much more interesting than anything I’ve seen in James Bond. Because it’s real.” I brought that to The Bourne Identity. The more real I got on The Bourne Identity, the more interesting it got. So Fair Game was the chance to go a few more steps in that direction. In fact, I discovered this whole other world that I had ignored in the Bourne franchise, which is the domestic life of a spy, and how you make the two halves of your life coexist. I was so fascinated with that aspect that we now have a whole TV series that does nothing but deal with that.
AVC: It’s like the running gag about 24: When does Jack Bauer take a leak? You never think about spies dealing with such mundane issues.
DL: My favorite scenes of Fair Game are seeing Valerie with her friends, and they’re talking about something they read in the newspaper. They’re reading about her, and she just has to play dumb. It’s such a crazy situation, and what’s craziest of all is that this is going on every day. As outrageous as those scenes might seem, there are thousands and thousands of covert CIA officers who are lying to their friends as we speak on this phone right this second.