Fair Game , the latest Hollywood film to deal with the Iraq war, was greeted with prolonged applause when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival today (Thursday) as the only U.S. entry in the competition for the festival's top Palme d'Or award. Starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, it tells the story of the illegal "outing" of former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson by the Bush administration following the outbreak of the war. In an apparent effort to avoid being branded an anti-war film and suffering the abysmal consequences that such films have encountered -- without exception -- at the box office, the filmmakers are stressing that it is actually a character study of the two principals, Plame and her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson. At a news conference following the screening of the movie, director Doug Liman ( The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The O.C. ) said, "We really didn't come to this film as a political movie but really as a story about two incredible characters who ... found themselves in the middle of a massive political scandal. ... This story will be fascinating in a hundred years ... and it was just a bonus that it happened to be true." Liman paid special tribute to Sean Penn, who he said spent long hours hanging out with Joe Wilson. "And each day he would become more and more like Joe Wilson. It was almost like watching a horror movie -- Sean and the Body Snatchers or something -- where slowly the personality of Joe is being sucked out and going into Sean in every little detail." Watts, in turn, was able to study close-up Valerie Plame Wilson, the tough, beautiful spy whose nearly two-decade-long career came to an end when she was exposed. "How many opportunities do [actresses] have to play women like Valerie Plame Wilson?" she asked. Conspicuous by their absence from the news conference were Penn -- who was asked to testify before a Senate committee about his relief efforts in Haiti -- and the Wilsons themselves. Ironically, the Wilsons are in Cannes to support the documentary film Countdown to Zero, but Liman said that the festival turned down a request to allow them to appear at the news conference, citing rules allowing only the actual participants in a production to appear. Oddly, a festival spokesperson declined to confirm or deny such rules.