That there would be two political thrillers in 2010 about the now seven-year-old boondoggle of the Iraqi WMD program, both making the not terribly bold claim that members of the Bush administration knew damn well that there was no Iraqi WMD program, is a touch odd, but not of itself surprising. That both of the films in question would be directed by veterans of the Jason Bourne trilogy - and that, moreover, the two films in question would like and feel uncannily like the respective director's different approaches to Bourne - is, if not "surprising", certainly weird as hell, but there you go: last March brought Paul Greengrass's Green Zone; and now, just in time to kick-start Oscar season, comes Doug Liman's Fair Game, the largely fact-based story of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn).

Just in case you don't remember: back in 2003, after the United States invaded Iraq, Wilson - a former ambassador to Gabon - wrote an op-ed in the New York Times explaining how he'd made a fact-finding mission to Niger on behalf of the CIA, where he learned to his satisfaction that there was no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein's government had attempted to purchase 500 tons of yellowcake uranium. This directly contradicted the infamous "16 words" in President George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa", the most compelling information ever presented to the American public justifying the impending war. Less than a week later, syndicated columnist Robert Novak published an article casually mentioning the name of Wilson's wife as the reason he was sent to Africa, mentioning that he'd received this information from two senior administration officials. This revelation effectively destroyed Plame's CIA career, and sent Wilson on a crusade to find the men responsible for the leak and bringing them to justice on the grounds of willfully compromising an undercover agent. (The film, incidentally, presents Wilson as being much more entirely anti-war than was historically the case).

Plame and Wilson came under a good amount of criticism (you may have forgotten, but this used to be a rancorous and politically-divided country); Fair Game - adapted by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth from Wilson's memoir The Politics of Truth and Plame's memoir Fair Game - is unabashedly, though not primarily, meant as a bit of character-reconstruction. And thus, the movie is not primarily dedicated to the Plame Affair of mid-2003, but to the events leading up to it, establishing in precise detail that Plame was not a glorified secretary, that Wilson was not hand-picked by his wife for the fact-finding mission for financial reasons, and so forth. It is hard to say that it is completely successful as a polemic (like a great many political movies, Fair Game is largely going to convince only those who already agree with it), but it is quite a cracking good spy movie, wandering around the halls of the Central Intelligence Agency with a degree of casual intimacy that no doubt misleads - a film to accurately and minutely recreates the exact culture of the CIA would have a very hard time finding commercial release, methinks - but gives the film a pleasantly hectic feeling nonetheless.

As a thriller bound largely to the corridors of power, Fair Game is not much like Liman's best-known work, 2002's running-around-having-chases epic The Bourne Identity; yet the film's aesthetic is largely borrowed from that film, with a harsh, almost bleachy look to the fashionably hand-held cinematography (by Liman himself; his first stint as a DP since 1999's Go), and urgently chopped together by Christopher Tellefsen. It is at first a bit distracting, even annoying, to see these by-now-clichéd visual markers of Exciting! Action! Cinema! used for a movie that largely consists of people having agitated conversations; but that ends up being part of the appeal of the film, which by dint of using those clichés is able to demonstrate that the stuff onscreen is every bit as life-and-death important as watching Matt Damon outrunning a car (it's similar to, if not nearly as successful as, Alan J. Pakula's edgy, noir-infused journalism thriller All the President's Men). And in the moments where Plame actually does some more typically Bondian spy stuff - as she does in the film's immaculately-constructed opening scene - the uniformity between styles reminds us that yes, all of this is her job.

Unfortunately for the film, real life happened, and the last third or so of the movie is generally dull: though I do not blame Liman for this. How the hell do you stage character assassination, anyway? Particular when, as in this case, the truth has never come all the way out, and the film is obliged to settle, lamely, for depicting the act of "It was probably Scooter Libby (David Andrews)"; and now we all learn that a movie that can't depict a man who we don't know for certain committed a crime that largely involves passing information to reporters ends up having a hard time finding the drama.

Thus comes the film's other major arc: the drama of a marriage under pressure. To be fair, it's been a secondary theme throughout the movie: Valerie and Joe as two ships passing in the night for years on end, having a hard enough time keeping a babysitter scheduled for their kids, and certainly not attending to their marriage. This is also familiar ground for Liman, who treated on the subject of bored suburban marriage in the context of a thriller in the playfully downmarket and under-appreciated Mr. & Mrs. Smith; done much more seriously, of course, and it comes incredibly close to working. But the juggling between message movie activism and psychodrama insight is too much for the filmmakers to handle. In particular, Penn's performance, driven quite plainly by the actor's noted political conviction, offers little room for anything especially human (in which we might say that he is only playing the character as written: Joe Wilson's politicking being what starts to drive the marriage apart in the first place. I find this to be only a temporarily credible defense of Penn's performance, which is both loopy and outraged; the kind of performance that thrills the ardent Pennphiles with its bravery and unconventionality, as in e.g. The Assassination of Richard Nixon, while leaving those of us only occasionally impressed by the man and far more often alarmed by his apparent lack of discipline to shake our heads in embarrassed dismay, murmuring, "Oh, Sean, what the fuck..."), though Watts is as good as she's been in anything since The Painted Veil, bringing to life all of Plame's various and incompatible ways of being, without letting any one aspect overwhelm the others.She 's powerfully nuanced, undoubtedly the best thing about Fair Game.

Nor for lack of competition. I liked the film - it's a brassy thriller, unafraid to trumpet its political convictions, which I happen to agree with. No, not "happen to"; as with Green Zone, part of the fun is in seeing my own views validated by pretty people and shiny action. I will not deny that. But back to my point: Fair Game is a wholly entertaining if aesthetically unchallenging neo-spy thriller, and it's smart, and it ends with a cheesy but desperately heartfelt appeal to the viewer's patriotism and sense of ethics. But that third act! Maybe it's the anaesthetic of the familiar; maybe it's just because the plot involves nothing but people yelling on the phone. But from the moment Plame's identity is revealed, the film takes a sharp dive into banality that only Watts's fully engaged performance salvages. Worse endings have happened to better movies, but it's always disappointing to see a film go this fully off the rails.