, ,

Fair Game, the new movie about the right wing outing of Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent, based on her own book by the same name, is much more compelling than not but stops short of being the powerful investigative movie it might have been.

The story of high government officials disclosing Plame’s identity, several months into the US invasion of Iraq, and after her husband, Joe Wilson,  has revealed Presidential lies in a NY Times Opinion piece,   is tightly told with elements of spy-thriller movies that set our hearts to racing.  Woven tightly through the thriller however is the tension brought into their marriage by the sudden public recognition of the couple,  much of it very unfriendly.  Their formerly complementary personalities of  shadow fighter and in-your-face fighter become, under the public spotlight, dangerously antagonistic. I know such emotionally charged intimacies are thought to enlarge the target audience.  It was the specific intention of the screenwriters to bring us into the family drama, as they have stated, and many reviewers are approving but for me it got in the way.

Sean Penn as Wilson and Naomi Watts as Plame do fine jobs of looking like their characters and from what we’ve seen of live news of the actual couple, of acting like them.  This is true also of the actors playing Karl Rove [Adam LeFevre],  George  Tenant and Scooter Libbey [David Andrews] — all passable “twins.”   Libby in particular, is convincing as the Administration bully-boy.  After a bit of a rocky start with  “important people in a hurry”  office shots, movie shorthand for exciting events coming it settles down with good narrative setting shots of Plame in her capacity as an operative, in Cairo, Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere. She is in dangerous places; the sun is hot, the dust is real.    She seems to be the  real deal, not a third tier “secretary” as the Administration’s smear team later characterized her.  Well done cutting of actual news footage of the time, the 2003 State of the Union Address by Bush, the infamous Condoleeza Rice “mushroom cloud” warning, the growling Cheney, add verisimilitude to the story.  The curtains of forgetting are drawn back and we experience again the emotion of those months.

The heart-racing core of the movie involves Plame’s persuading and sending an Iraqi American doctor to Baghdad, just months before the March 2003 attack, to ask her nuclear physicist brother about the state of the Iraq nuclear program. Plame seems intent on finding the truth about Presidential declarations of an imminent Iraqi nuclear threat and pushes her CIA superiors to support her.   Representations are made to the Iraqis that the US will take care of the physicist and his colleagues if they will help with accurate, current information.   The sister reluctantly and fearfully agrees to go.  The brother, after a fine family reunion,  is astounded by her questions:  “The program was destroyed in 1992 [after the first US invasion]  Don’t they know that!”  All this is reported back to the CIA, and presumably to the White House.  The war begins anyway, of course, March 20, 2003. [As we know now, there was never any intention to do anything other than invade, evidence be damned.]

Wilson’s article appears on July 6, 2003 and the firestorm of Administration seeded news stories, aiming to replace his allegations about the President and the war with questions about Wilson’s and Plame’s lives, status, reliability and purposes begins.  Robert Novak, long a hit-man for the right, alleges that Wilson was not sent by the Vice President’s office to Niger on a fact finding mission; his wife Valerie Plame, CIA, had sent him.   Once she has been outed she is no longer of use to the CIA, or so her superiors  (Tenant?) told her.

Persona non grata, she is not allowed to carry through on her promise to take care of her contacts.  Nor will her superiors, under whose authority representing the United States of America she made the promises, honor them.  All her contacts are cut free.  It does not end well for them.  The scenes of the physicist and family waiting to be taken to safety are excruciating, and not just in an ordinary movie sense.  We feel personally culpable for what our government has done.    While the particular story of the nuclear scientists is cinematic license the film makers said it had come from extensive interviews of those involved in circumstances similar to Plame’s.

The central story of Plame’s betrayal, the utterly venal behavior of the Administration – particularly its genius at derailing the story of the President’s lies by getting the news media to replace it with vicious and untrue stories about the Wilsons, and the disaster to the Iraqis were plenty to make a spell binding movie with.  Undoubtedly there were family tensions, as both have told us.  My feeling is that they became too big and unnecessary part of the film.  As the hand-held closeups revealed anguish and anger in the warring couple I felt short changed twice over.  I wanted to know more of the details of the big and enormously important issues  and the domestic scenes were taking up precious time.

Scenes of the CIA group showed them to be completely at the mercy of Vice President Cheney and his henchmen.  Was there not more complexity there; no one with the moral fortitude to push back, even at the expense of their job?  George Tenant comes off as the scumbag he was but couldn’t more have been told of him?  Was he not involved in the decision to betray the Iraqi informants?   Wilson in the film decides to write the Opinion piece completely on his own.  His wife certainly didn’t know.  Did he discuss the merits of publishing it with anyone?  A chance of tension missed.  He sent it to the Times and it was published, bingo.  I’ll bet a movie ticket there was high level discussion and disagreement at the Times about whether to print it or not.  Again, tension, and details of the interlinking corrupt circles missed. Ffinally, though there was an ugly scene with a so called newswoman and Wilson, much much more might have been done with the culpability of large news organizations in  burying the real story in favor of a partisan and personal one, an invented scandal.   A nice scene of Scooter Libby handing out classified information to his NY Times go-to-girl, Judith Miller would have been very nice, and to the point.

The decision to use  the marital, familial chaos to charge up the tension made me think the film makers didn’t trust the audience get the emotional point from the  political-crime, war-involved story alone.  For me, what happens to the Iraqi family when the bombs begin to fall, and when they wait in vain for Plame’s promise to materialize were far more powerful, emotionally and politically, than watching Plame take the children by their hands and walk out on Wilson, or the utterly predictable moment when Plame is reminded of her own spine in a backyard chat with Dad [Sam Shepard doing a fine cameo,nevertheless.]  I wished more than once I were watching an actual documentary rather than the dramatization.  Or failing that a movie that stuck more to its big issue knitting needles, like All the President’s Men, or The Insider, the Pacino-Crowe movie about Big Tobacco and a whistle blower.

Where the film is good, it’s very good.  Once again I am furious, furious with the Administration, furious with myself and my friends for not doing more, furious with the sleep walking Americans who swallow anything marked as War Materiel.  I want to go find Karl Rove and give him  a very close hair cut.

When it’s not so good it’s just awkward and undercuts the urgency of the central message.  I wish I were outside preparing siege engines for the homes of those responsible.

My hat is tipped, it’s just not off my head.  My greeting is friendly and sincere I’m just not ready to give it a big hug.