Friday, November 19, 2010

Fair Game: The Spy Left Out in the Cold

Fair Game dramatizes the Valerie Plame affair and the lies that led to war

By Pamela Zoslov

If truth is the first casualty of war, the second must be the truth-tellers. Consider Julian Assange, the internationally hounded founder of the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, and Joe Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, the subjects of Doug Liman’s sharply observed drama Fair Game.

The movie is based on the memoirs of Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador who wrote a famous New York Times Op-Ed in 2003 disputing the manipulated intelligence cited by the Bush administration as a pretext for invading Iraq, and Plame, a CIA officer whose career ended when her covert identity was revealed by conservative columnist Robert Novak, evidently in retaliation for her husband’s outspokenness (Karl Rove reportedly said Plame was “fair game.”)

Although the Wilsons – the attractive, blond Valerie, once imagined by Maureen Dowd as Marvel Comics super-heroine “Valerie Flame,” and Joe, an √©minence grise with a salt-and-pepper mane and wire spectacles, are natural subjects for a movie spy thriller (like an older Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, stars of Liman’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith), the film wouldn’t succeed if it weren’t about something bigger: lies, propaganda, war, abuse of power, and the hijacking of democracy.

The casting could not be more perfect. Naomi Watts not only resembles Plame physically, but is credible and affecting as the gutsy covert operative who wears multiple identities in her often dangerous work — romanticized for the movie, but compelling — including that of a businesswoman, the disguise she wears in her daily life as a wife and mother in a prosperous Washington, D.C. suburb. Sean Penn seems to not so much impersonate Wilson as channel him, in a nuanced performance that reminds us of how fine an actor he is. The movie’s Wilson is principled, arrogant, a bit of a blowhard, and his self-righteous but understandable bluster places his wife in jeopardy.

As part of her work in non-proliferation, Plame is asked to recommend her husband, a former ambassador with expertise in African nations, for a trip to Niger to research whether Saddam Hussein bought weapons-grade yellowcake uranium. Wilson’s report concludes that no such purchase was made, and he’s incensed when the now-infamous “16 words” — claiming Hussein sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa” — make their way into Bush’s State of the Union address. Wilson fires off his Times article, which reverberates in the White House, where Scooter Libby (David Andrews) and Rove, surely acting on behalf of Vice President Dick Cheney, seek to discredit him by leaking his wife’s identity to Novak.

Following her exposure, Plame is subjected to death threats, and Wilson is denounced by the cable-news noise machine as a flake, hack, liar and traitor. Jez and John Henry Butterworth’s excellent screenplay doesn’t overlook the dire human consequences of Plame’s blown cover – a group of Iraqi scientists she promised to smuggle out of Iraq are left stranded and in jeopardy. The Wilsons’ marriage falters, and Plame takes refuge with her mother and father (Sam Shepard), a retired Air Force colonel.

Soon the affair known as “Plamegate” erupts, and Libby – “the fall guy,” according to the movie’s Wilson -- is convicted of obstruction of justice and other charges and sentenced to prison before his sentence is commuted by Bush. The Wilsons, today still denounced by many on the right, left D.C. for a new life in Santa Fe. They survived the ordeal, spoke out and wrote books, but the same can’t be said of the other victims of the mendacious invasion — the uncounted thousands of dead Iraqis, victims of gruesome torture, brutal home raids, random shooting and indiscriminate bombing. The public’s memory is short, but as the ongoing, terrible revelations attest, history will not forget.

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