Valerie and Joe's War

November 19th, 2010

Ottawa Citizen

Smart thriller chases story of real-life intrigue and betrayal in Washington, D.C.

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By Katherine Monk, Postmedia News November 19, 2010

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts play real-life whistleblowers Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson in this smart account of a C.I.A. leak scandal.

We’re living in very strange times: There is more news content and truth in a major Hollywood motion picture than there is on the public record.

Certainly, that’s the case with Fair Game, the dramatized feature based on the real-life story of Valerie Plame and her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson. Director Doug Liman and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth pored over the documents associated with the infamous U.S. government leak that exposed the identity of a CIA operative in the field. They read every transcript and interviewed key players, including Plame and Wilson, who both chronicled their experiences in autobiographies.

The problem with Plame’s book was the fact it was subject to redaction at the hands of her former employers at the CIA, who removed huge chunks of information that potentially “threatened national security.”

A lot of that information is apparently in the movie script, because when you’re making a Hollywood movie, your audience expects a little fudging here and there to fit the needs of dramatic device.

No one expects the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but empirical data in a movie. And yet most of what we see in Fair Game is fact — including the revelation that Plame was not a loudmouth nobody in the agency, as she was characterized by Republicans looking to discredit her and her husband. Plame was actually one of the people in charge of the nuclear anti-proliferation group in Iraq.

If we are to believe this movie — and Plame has said that what we see on screen is accurate — the career agent actually had tabs on Iraq’s nuclear scientists. She could have brought them to the States to testify to the cessation of Iraq’s nuclear program long ago. But before that could happen, her husband was maligned as a traitor, she was exposed as an operative, and the two of them were portrayed as self-promoting nobodies out to destroy the president.

If you don’t remember the saga about Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, Liman does a brilliant job revisiting history and filling in the blanks.

In the wake of 9/11, America was ramping up for war. George W. Bush and his cronies needed to sell the war in Iraq, but without proof that Iraq had a role in the World Trade Center bombing, it would be a tough sell to the American public. Bush needed to make Iraq look threatening, and so, with a few rewrites and creative liberties with intelligence reports, he told the citizens of his great nation what boiled down to a lie: He suggested Saddam Hussein was trying to create a nuclear bomb by acquiring vast amounts of yellow-cake uranium, the radioactive element needed to start the weapons-of-mass-destruction chain reaction.

The rest is history — with a still-rising body count.

Liman touches on the moral tragedy of a government lying to its own people, but what his movie does exceptionally well is show how ordinary folk with strong moral fibre are caught in the jaws of a larger agenda.

How does an honest man deal with being called a liar? And how does a career secret-service agent deal with exposure at the hands of her own organization? Betrayal is the core of this movie, and it’s where Liman drives around in engine-revving doughnuts for the duration, as he brings the best of his action repertoire to the fore and welds it to the twisted frame of current events.

It’s an odd beast, but it works beautifully, because we care about these people. We never really got to know Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson in the original story, because the counter-optics were so effective. But in the movie, with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts playing Joe and Valerie, we can spend some quality time with the couple — and they’re magnetic.

Penn does a great job finding a lion’s stride from the beginning. When Joe realizes what the president has done, he springs into action to defend the nation — on his own. When Plame realizes what’s happened, she does nothing, because she’s still under the control of a government agency. Even when she’s exposed (as the result of a deliberate leak by Scooter Libby), she does nothing, because she’s still in soldier mode: the mission above all.

Plame is easily the most sympathetic character on screen, and in the hands of Watts, she attains a softness that makes her strength even more impressive.

Liman pulls his Bourne experience out of his back pocket to give Fair Game a tightly wound core, so it looks and behaves like an action movie, even though it’s really a domestic drama with one of the biggest global events of the last decade forming the backdrop.

Smart, well-written and loaded with a double-barrel of truth, Fair Game puts the whole D.C. scene in its laser-guided sights, and gently squeezes the trigger.

– – –

Fair Game

– ***

Starring: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and Sam Shepard

Directed by: Doug Liman

Rating: PG (mature theme, coarse language)

Playing at: AMC, Empire 7