Hollywood has already taken one pass at the story of Valerie Plame—the CIA agent whose identity was leaked to the press in July 2003 after her husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson, published an op-ed suggesting that President Bush had exaggerated the threat of a nuclear Iraq to justify a U.S. invasion. Two years ago, Rod Lurie, writer-director of The Contender (2000), assembled a ludicrous political thriller called Nothing But the Truth that fictionalized the Plame case: Vera Farmiga is a sexy CIA agent named Erica Van Doren whose cover is blown by an ambitious reporter and who (unlike Plame) winds up getting whacked. The movie was a case study in how to trivialize the great events of the day in pursuit of “ripped from the headlines” verisimilitude; it played in New York on its way to DVD but never even opened in Chicago.
By contrast, Doug Liman’s Fair Game is a model exercise in dramatizing recent political scandal, and easily the best fact-based Hollywood political thriller since All the President’s Men (1976). Liman, director of The Bourne Identity (2002) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), knows how to ratchet up the tension as Wilson (Sean Penn) writes his op-ed for the New York Times and Plame (Naomi Watts) is outed by right-wing columnist Robert Novak. But as it turns out, what really drives the story is the personal material: adapting memoirs by Plame and Wilson, fraternal screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth manage to fuse the largest questions of war and national security with a persuasive love story about two harried Washington professionals.
Joseph Wilson spent two decades in the U.S. foreign service, working to foster democracy in Niger, Burundi, and the Congo. Assigned to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, he was the last American diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein before Operation Desert Storm drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in January 1991, and seven years later Wilson orchestrated President Clinton’s 11-day tour of the African continent. Shortly thereafter he married 35-year-old Valerie Plame, who had been with the CIA since the mid-80s and was a deep-cover officer operating from national headquarters in Langley, Virginia. After Plame gave birth to their twins in 2000, she returned to active service and, as part of the CIA’s counterproliferation division, helped monitor Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. In this capacity she casually recommended Wilson, by then a private consultant, for a pro bono trip to Niger in late 2001, to assess reports that it was selling yellowcake uranium to Saddam Hussein.
Like All the President’s Men, which was also driven by the chemistry between its two main characters, Fair Game is blessed with strong leads: Penn and Watts are completely convincing as the Wilsons, two people who genuinely love each other but wrestle with the usual problems of work, kids, and social obligations. Joe tends to his consulting business from home and cares for the rambunctious twins while Valerie commutes to Langley and travels around the globe. He’s assertive, professorial, and a little self-righteous; she’s more reasoned and circumspect. Shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks, they attend a dinner party where the conversation turns to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, and Joe tells off another guest. “He’s one of our oldest friends,” Plame reminds him as they drive home afterward. “You can’t call him a racist pussy.” They’re like any married couple, comparing notes after an intimate social gathering. Their affection is evident a few scenes later, when they meet at CIA headquarters and Joe playfully bumps hips with his wife in the corridors of power.
In other respects, though, the Wilsons’ marriage is far from typical. Back home after the dinner party, Joe watches Valerie muttering and thrashing around in her sleep and slides up her pajama sleeve to reveal bruises on her arm—souvenirs from an operation in Kuala Lumpur. Because Valerie is a covert officer, she and Joe maintain the fiction with friends and neighbors that she works in international venture capital, but her real work is winning the trust of Iraqi nuclear scientists and their families. One morning before dawn, as Valerie slips out of the house to make a flight, Joe appears on the stairs. “All we’ve been doing is leaving Post-its for each other,” he observes. “The fridge is like a dead-letter drop.” His complaint should ring a bell with any two-career couple—but there’s an element of dread too. “I don’t know where you go,” says Joe. “I don’t know who you meet. I don’t know if you’re in a ditch somewhere, and if you went missing I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone.”
Entwined with this story is a detailed account of how the Bush administration manufactured its case for war against Iraq. Sent to Niger by the CIA, Joe finds no evidence to support the contention that Saddam has acquired 500 tons of uranium there. Valerie is summoned to meet with a young hotshot from the Office of the Vice President and challenges his claim that 6,000 aluminum tubes seized on their way from China to Iraq were materials for a centrifuge. “No one’s saying you’re wrong here,” she tells him politely. “But if you’re right, it’s huge. So we ask the question.” Unfortunately no one in the White House is interested in asking questions. Watching TV in an airport, Joe hears President Bush announce in his State of the Union address that Saddam sought uranium in Africa; running on a treadmill at a health club, Valerie is thrown off her stride by a news report citing the aluminum tubes as weapons material.
After Joe contradicts the president’s claims in the Times and Valerie is exposed in the media, their marriage begins to fracture badly; he wants to mount an offensive against the White House while she hopes in vain to preserve her privacy. Nothing threatens a marriage like an irrevocable change in one partner’s life, and after Valerie loses her cover she seems progressively less certain who she is. Family and friends besiege her with phone calls and e-mails, but she can’t speak candidly with them. Fox News and conservative talk radio slime the Wilsons, calling her a glorified secretary and him an opportunist sent on a junket by his wife. Cranks and crazies come out of the woodwork: in one surreal scene Valerie answers the phone and her little daughter vies for her attention as the person on the other end exclaims, “I hope you die, you commie whore! We know where you live.” Valerie and Joe argue bitterly over his decision to push back against the right-wing smear campaign, first on MSNBC and then in a Vanity Fair story, and she leaves him, taking the kids to her parents’ house and contemplating divorce.
In publishing Plame’s memoir, Fair Game, Simon & Schuster was forced to redact a fair amount of material from the chapters about her CIA service, so it’s no surprise that the moviemakers resort to invention to convey Plame’s importance as chief of the Iraq branch in the agency’s counterproliferation division. The screenwriters have fictionalized a true story from James Risen’s book State of War in which an Iraqi-born doctor, working at the Cleveland Clinic, was recruited to visit Baghdad and question her brother, an engineer believed to be part of Saddam’s nuclear program. In real life this particular operation was set in motion by another CIA division, but in the movie Plame becomes the protagonist, visiting the woman and persuading her to risk her life on a secret mission. After Valerie’s cover is blown, there’s another invented scene in which the doctor shows up at the Wilsons’ door, terrified for her brother and stunned that the U.S. government has betrayed her trust.
Eventually every story line in the movie comes down to a matter of trust—between the White House and the CIA, between citizens and their leaders, between husbands and wives. The Wilsons’ low point arrives when Joe learns in the media about Valerie’s internal memo recommending him for the Niger trip, which contradicts his own statements on the matter and invites the right-wingers to pounce. The spouses face off in the park as their kids scamper around out of earshot, and Joe quickly zeroes in on Valerie’s talent for subterfuge. (“You think I’m lying?” she asks him. “Could I tell if you were?” he replies.) The Plame-Wilson affair was partly resolved in 2006 when former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage identified himself as Novak’s source, and the following year when a jury convicted Scooter Libby, the vice president’s former chief of staff, of having lied to the FBI and obstructed its investigation as it crept toward his boss. But the bigger lies that took the country to war linger on in the body politic—long after the Wilsons managed to mend their marriage.
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