by John Lopez
November 5, 2010, 11:30 AM
If Tuesday’s election didn’t sate your thirst for back-stabbing politics and blatant public deceit, then the cineplex has just the thing for you this weekend: Fair Game. With the gritty, hyperkinetic sensibility that he demonstrated in The Bourne Identity, director Doug Liman’s film re-creates L’Affaire Valerie Plame and hearkens back to great 70s political thrillers such as Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and All The President’s Men. Part political exposé, part spy thriller, Fair Game aims to remind you that the government once used trumped-up claims of nuclear Armageddon to justify a protracted and destructive ground war in the Middle East—in case you forgot. Liman’s father was chief counsel for the Senate during the Iran-Contra scandal, and he uses his intimate understanding of America’s intelligence network to paint a detailed picture of how the C.I.A. really works.
But what was Liman’s real secret weapon? The real Valerie Plame, the C.I.A. agent whose politically motivated unmasking could be traced all the way back to the White House. VF Daily caught up with Ms. Plame by phone to find out what it’s like to have one’s own public ordeal dramatized for public consumption—and to see how well her C.I.A. training holds up under the brutal, relentless questioning of a film blogger.
John Lopez: What I like about Fair Game is that it starts off like a Bourne-style thriller, but then also shows the workaday world of C.I.A. operatives, like yourself, which is something we don’t get to see too often.
Valerie Plame: It’s much more grounded in reality. It’s all about human relationships. Joe [Wilson, Plame’s husband] and I were both consultants on the film, and the writers—Jez and John-Henry Butterworth—worked really hard to absorb everything out there. Of course, it’s an hour-and-45-minute movie, not a documentary, but I think it’s really powerful, and I’m really proud.
What’s it like to relive everything, except with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts in your places?
Surreal! How lucky are we to have Naomi Watts and Sean Penn playing us? We’ve seen the final cut now a couple times, and the scenes with the marriage fraying at the edges are still very difficult to watch. However, our hope was that no matter your political persuasion, you’re taken with the idea that it’s important to hold power in check. These are issues we’ve been grappling with since the Constitution was written: how you hold your government to account for its words and deeds. It’s all about power and the abuse of power.
What’s really interesting is how you show that abuse of power working not through secret cabal-like meetings, but through the mundane corridors of bureaucracy.
Well, I wouldn’t call Cheney’s view of the world with his 1 percent doctrine mundane in any way. The intelligence community really is a vast bureaucratic entity, and it has been politicized in ways that are not effective for the gathering of intelligence and giving it to senior policymakers. Why did we go to war with Iraq? The American people were told there was an imminent nuclear threat from Saddam Hussein, that was the core of the argument, “we don’t want to see the smoking gun in the shape of a mushroom cloud.” Now here we are. My husband was just in Baghdad on business maybe three weeks ago, and he was slack-jawed at the destruction. The civil society has been completely destroyed, and we know from those recent Wikileaks that the numbers of Iraqi civilian casualties are far higher than any official source has given us. But I see your point, because there wasn’t just one evil genius rubbing his hands like in a Bond movie.
Speaking of politicization, the movie shows your character so caught up in her work that she ignores the politics, almost to her detriment.
When you work for the C.I.A. or as a diplomat, or serve in the military, you’re not serving as a Democrat or a Republican; you serve as an American, whatever your personal moral compass or political views might be. So that would describe me. I was focused on running effective, secure operations to try to understand the state of the alleged Iraqi W.M.D. program. I very much had my head in the operational weeds. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech before the U.N., for me personally, that was a turning point when I realized the administration’s rhetoric did not match up with the intelligence. And I found that to be a very painful experience. If none of this had happened, I would be overseas now working anonymously on these issues that I care passionately about—counter-proliferation, making sure the bad guys don’t get a nuclear bomb.
Obviously, there’s a lot you can’t discuss, and I don’t want you committing treason for a movie blog, but can you tell me what Hollywood gets most wrong in spy thrillers?
[Laughs.] My particular gripe with Hollywood is how they portray female operations officers. They’re all about sexuality and physicality and how well they handle an AK-47. Really, it’s much more your “mental skills” that will point to your success or failure!
O.K. but according to the movie, you’re really good with an AK-47.
I am. [Laughs.] It’s really about building relationships, understanding someone’s motivation, and, like any workplace, understanding how you can be effective.
I see you’ve given a well-scrubbed answer designed to avoid treason. So, what part of the job does Fair Game highlight that we don’t normally see in films?
The personal cost. All this raining down on us outside of our control. It really is the most powerful machine. Particularly at that time, the Bush administration had all the levers of power; they were running a juggernaut. When my identity was first leaked, I was in shock. Joe figured out that we needed to push back, but it took me a while to get there.
Now that you’re hanging with movie stars and filmmakers, have you noticed any similarities between Hollywood and Washington?
The saying is that Hollywood is the same as Washington, just better looking. I would say more money, but after this last election it’s clear Washington is awash in money from anonymous and foreign sources. It’s not our world, but we’ve tried to learn it. We’re really pleased with the product. Of course, we have no control over the box office…
Speaking of box office, what fascinates me is the influence Hollywood seems to wield, even though its percentage of the American economy is comparatively small.
I think film is able to reach people in ways that other media cannot. It has much more of an emotional, visceral impact. Some films you carry with you forever. You hope that people walk away and give thought to how we want to continue our democracy. I found this last election cycle to be particularly vicious and vile. Yet for all the noise it’s generated, you find voting rates are very low, particularly voting among young people, which dropped off 50 percent. That makes me want to weep. You don’t have the right to complain if you are not going to educate yourself and not vote. It feels a little bit like chasing your tail.
Can an exciting film re-engage people with larger issues outside their personal sphere?
I hope so. You get them in there. You have to entertain them, otherwise they leave, but maybe they walk out with just a little bit of knowledge. [Fair Game] was as accurate and as close to the truth as we could make it without revealing sources and methods. The hope is they walk out and give it some thought. Do you want to actively participate as a citizen? We have many, many rights, but we also have many responsibilities.
Are there any films you remember having that kind of impact on you?
My brother served in Vietnam as a Marine, and he was wounded in the Tet Offensive, but this was all when I was very young. We’re very close now but he didn’t really speak about these experiences and then one day I saw Born on the Fourth of July. Really, I think that was one of Tom Cruise’s best movies. It certainly spoke to me and made me understand much more powerfully my brother’s own experiences.
When they were casting Fair Game, did they ever call you and say, “So which movie star would you like to play you?”;
[Laughs.] They didn’t ask that question, but very early on Naomi and Sean said yes. Sean Penn, while I might not have picked him out of a lineup, does what he does best. He morphs. You’re not watching Sean Penn, like you do with other leading men—you’re watching the character he is playing. I have no perspective, but my husband and close friends say Naomi does an amazing job, so I’ll take their word. Naomi in real life speaks with a lovely Australian accent, and she captured all my voice inflections! I’ve lived so many places, I don’t have a particular regional accent, and she totally got that.
I read in the Los Angeles Times that you guys hit it off. What about your husband and Sean Penn?
Well, Sean stayed with us in Santa Fe a couple of times, and he is the consummate Method actor. He absorbed everything. Next thing, he’s figured out Joe’s cologne and his glasses. Although what the movie doesn’t show is my husband has a really great sense of humor. He also has better hair.