"Fair Game" is a riveting spy thriller in which lies, lives and ideals explode like anti-personnel devices. It's a Machiavellian tale of deceit, sabotage, vendettas and subterfuge. And it's all true. Adapted from outed CIA agent Valerie Plame's experiences, it turns her life undercover -- and under siege from a vengeful White House -- into the most compelling Washington thriller since "All the President's Men."

This is a beautifully executed piece of suspense drama. There are no guns or daggers on display here, but a note of danger resonates in every scene. Operating as his own cameraman, director Doug Liman uses the wide-screen frame to close down the view rather than open it up, creating a sense of terrible enclosure.

The 2001 opening gives us Plame, undercover in Kuala Lumpur, requesting a meeting with a wealthy Arab man involved in nuclear weapons trafficking. First she has to outwit his suspicious nephew, who interrogates her with questions it seems she's unprepared for. Claiming to be Canadian, Plame uses her sharp mind -- and some hockey trivia -- to turn the tables and get out of a terrible jam.

Back in Washington, Plame's life is professional accomplishment laced with family angst. Her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), is a former U.S. ambassador hustling to turn his Africa expertise into a consulting business. He feels he's heading out to pasture as her professional star rises.

He's a man who enjoys being authoritative, but no one asks his opinion anymore. He's the one who minds the kids while she saves the world.

On some level she might be doing him a favor when she recommends him to conduct a CIA investigation. He visits Niger to examine rumors that Saddam Hussein sought 500 tons of uranium from Niger; his report debunks the story. When President Bush utters the falsehood in his 2003 post-invasion State of the Union address, Wilson writes a whistle-blowing article for the New York Times. In retaliation, the White House blows Plame's cover. Hounded by the administration and the media, the couple battle to salvage the truth, their professional lives and their relationship.

There is a spirit of outrage in the story, but "Fair Game" is no political diatribe. Liman ("The Bourne Identity") wisely lets the outrageous facts speak for themselves. His film achieves a sophisticated moral balance as it grapples with larger issues about our divided government, and insights into a marriage strained by its partners' conflicting ideals.

The script makes us consider the distinction between truth, cover, spin and deception. Joe, furious about a detail of his Niger assignment that his wife concealed from him, demands, "If you were lying to me, could I tell?"

Watts and Penn soar. Their union seems rocky even before the crisis; when they're together they have the body language of strangers. The stars feel uncannily accurate in their parts. His hair streaked gray and carrying a 20-pound Beltway bulge, Penn looks every inch the arrogant old bull revitalized by a righteous battle. Watts' performance makes you sit up; she's on some special wavelength of energy and inspiration. She rarely walks among the outwardly respectful men at CIA headquarters without leaving a wake of uneasy, unfriendly glances behind her, and you know she knows it.

The performances and the film maintain a magnetic emotional contact with the audience. This is sober yet electrifying work -- sensational without sensationalism. "Fair Game" is a triumph on all counts, a sure rival of "Inception" and "The Social Network" in the race for the best-picture Academy Award.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186