San Francisco Chronicle: Director Doug Liman plays 'Fair' with Plame affair

November 4th, 2010

San Francisco Chronicle

Director Doug Liman plays ‘Fair’ with Plame affair

By Pam Grady, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, October 31, 2010

Summit Entertainment

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Valerie Plame Wilson was the CIA operative famously outed by the Bush White House in a fit of pique after her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, accused the administration of manipulating intelligence in the days leading to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The Plame Affair, as it came to be known, is the subject of “Fair Game,” “Bourne Identity” director Doug Liman’s latest film, starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn as Plame and Wilson. But what intrigued the filmmaker when he first read Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s screenplay was not so much the scandal as the Wilsons’ home life.

“I knew this was going to be my next movie within 10 minutes of reading it, and all you have in these first 10 pages is you see Valerie Plame abroad on a mission and then you see her at home with her friends,” Liman says on a recent visit to the Bay Area, where “Fair Game” screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival. “I fell in love with that take of a spy movie. I couldn’t believe, after all the movies I’ve done in the spy arena, that it had never occurred to me to explore the domestic side of being a spy.

“She reminded me a lot of the women I grew up around, who work a full-time job and come home and still have to make dinner for their husbands and get their kids to school or, if they were going to be away on business, leave food in Tupperware containers labeled for each day. Just because you’re a spy, it doesn’t absolve you from the daily responsibilities of being a wife and a mother.”

Liman comes from a family with a close association to politics. His late father was Arthur L. Liman, a lawyer who was counsel for New York state in its investigation of the 1971 Attica prison riot, but who is most famous for serving as chief counsel to the U.S. Senate during its investigation into the 1980s-era Iran-Contra affair after it was revealed that the Reagan administration sold weapons to Iran in violation of an arms embargo to finance covert activity in Central America.

“The last time the White House so abused power was Iran-Contra, so there’s a huge emotional and political connection to my father in doing this film,” the 45-year-old New York native says.

The elder Liman always insisted that father and son had more in common than appeared on the surface, seeing both lawyers and filmmakers as essentially storytellers. The similarities are clearer to the son now as he sees parallels between his dad’s attempts to investigate the National Security Agency during Iran-Contra and his own immersion into the CIA’s covert realm while making “Fair Game.”
Tricky business

“The murky world in which spies operate and trying to find the truth in that environment is tricky business,” Liman says. “I don’t think I quite understood what my father was up against until I delved into it in ‘Fair Game,’ because everything about Valerie Plame’s life was classified. Even though Valerie and Joe cooperated with the film, she was never able to tell me any of the facts of her career, because it was all classified. She could go to jail for that.”

The Plame Affair broke while Liman was making “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” the 2005 action thriller that famously brought together Angelia Jolie and Brad Pitt. He remembers being angered by the Plame affair at the time, but thought no more about it until the Butterworths’ screenplay landed on his desk. He admits that he was often outraged during the Bush years, but he channeled his ire into action by making commercials for Barack Obama’s campaign. When he set out to make “Fair Game,” though the viewpoint is overwhelmingly that of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, he insists that he was determined to be fair, even reaching out to the lawyer of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff who was found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice in the affair, to see if Libby wanted to add his input. Libby did not respond