Truth is always slippery in spy movies, maybe even more so in a movie like 'Fair Game' that's based on real people and events that are still hotly disputed.
The movie, which opens Friday, recounts the 2003 controversy surrounding the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) by the George W. Bush White House, in response to her diplomat husband Joe Wilson's (Sean Penn) whistleblowing assertion that the administration had ignored evidence he'd gathered casting doubt on the existence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program, one of President Bush's stated justifications for going to war against Iraq.
The Wilsons' supporters argued that they were being punished for revealing that the Bush team had misled the world in justifying the war, and that blowing Plame's cover harmed her covert efforts to curb nuclear proliferation, not to mention putting all her contacts in danger. The couple's critics claim to this day that the Wilsons were publicity hounds who'd overstated their own importance.
Of course, 'Fair Game' takes the Wilsons' side; they served as consultants to the production. Still, Plame has acknowledged in recent interviews that some events and characters have been altered, in part to protect the vow of secrecy she made to the CIA, and in part because even she doesn't know what became of some of her overseas contacts after she was exposed.
What Really Happened?
In the movie, Washington, DC housewife Plame is outed as a CIA spy by the White House, which leaks her name to the press after Wilson, a former ambassador who'd served in Iraq and Africa under the first President Bush, writes an op-ed in the New York Times discussing his fact-finding mission to Niger in search of evidence that Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain yellowcake uranium to make nuclear weapons. Despite Wilson's 2002 report stating that there was no such evidence, President Bush had gone on to state the opposite in making the case for war against Iraq during his 2003 State of the Union address. But once Wilson made his report public in the Times, the White House moves to discredit and embarrass him, making collateral damage out of his wife and endangering her overseas contacts.
At least, that's the story as Plame and Wilson have told it in congressional testimony and in their respective memoirs. Their critics, however, continue to this day to dismiss their account, saying that, when Washington Post columnist Robert Novak revealed her name, she was no longer a covert operative but was little more than a "glorified secretary," that her husband's Niger trip was a nepotistic junket she had orchestrated and that the Wilsons are just social-climbing publicity hounds, à la the Salahis of 'The Real Housewives of D.C.,' who've done more to expose themselves (including, now, this movie) than Novak or the Bush administration ever did.
Still, much of the controversy over Plame's outing became a matter of public record during the criminal investigation that resulted in the conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for obstruction of justice. Director Doug Liman, who has this sort of Middle East spy controversy in his blood (his father was Arthur Liman, the Senate counsel for the Iran-Contra investigation), says he's done scrupulous research of the Justice Department's findings in the case. Screenwriting brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have also done meticulous research, independently unearthing the stories of some of Plame's foreign contacts, as well as attending Libby's trial.
But What About Dick Cheney?
One issue still in contention: What was the role in the leak of Libby's boss, Vice President Cheney? The Wilsons have long blamed Cheney for orchestrating the leak, but Libby did not implicate him during the trial. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage eventually took the blame for the leak (he claimed he'd inadvertently spilled the beans to Novak), but neither he nor anyone else was ever charged with a crime for compromising Plame and her contacts. (Libby's conviction was for obstructing justice during the probe of the leak, not for the leak itself. President Bush commuted his sentence.) Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald blamed Libby's lies to federal investigators for his inability to gather enough evidence to charge anyone else.
'Fair Game' Trailer
And Karl Rove?
White House political adviser Karl Rove also admitted a role in the scandal. It was his remark to MSNBC's Chris Matthews, that Wilson's going public about his trip to Niger made his wife fair game, that was the source of the titles of Plame's 2007 memoir and the new movie.
The administration was also forced to agree with Wilson that it had overstated the case for Saddam's nuclear WMD program when President Bush cited Iraq's alleged effort to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger in his State of the Union address. Nonetheless, critics of the Wilsons, in both the White House and the media, accused the former ambassador of overstating his case, of going to Niger on a nepotistic junket (his wife had cited his qualifications to the CIA when the agency was deciding whom to send on the mission) and called the Wilsons publicity hounds, since what CIA operative trying to keep a low profile would pose for photos in Vanity Fair? Then again, the photos accompanied a 2004 article about the leak case and were published months after Novak and the White House had effectively ended her CIA career.
Where Is 'Fair Game' Most Accurate?
As depicted in the film, the imbroglio nearly wrecked the Wilsons' marriage, as Wilson's desire to go public with his criticisms of the administration's conduct clashed with Plame's career-bred preference for secrecy and discretion.
And that may be where the movie rings truest: in its depiction of the Wilsons not as globetrotting CIA intelligence gatherers, but as a working couple whose career pressures put a heavy strain on their day-to-day relationship. It's worth noting that, even though 'Fair Game' comes from the director of 'The Bourne Identity' and 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith,' it does not portray spying as glamorous, action-packed, Jason Bourne-type work. (There is one conventional spy-movie scene involving a secret meeting with an intelligence chief outdoors on a bench under an umbella; in real life, Plame says, it never happened.) The reality is more mundane, and therefore, perhaps, more believable.
'Fair Game' gets that mix of work and family pressures on DC careerists just right, says the National Journal's Matthew Cooper. "Yeah, her duties involve interrupting a weapons shipment in Malaysia and securing the evacuation of nuclear scientists from Iraq," Cooper writes, "but she's still looking for day care and wondering what's for dinner."
Still, one of those DC pressures is the possibility that anyone might find themselves associated with a public scandal or controversy. And Cooper should know; when the White House was exposing Plame, he says, Rove leaked Plame's name to Cooper. (Cooper was one of many journalists to whom the administration leaked Plame's identity, though only Novak put it in print.) The fear that you may awaken to find TV cameras in your front yard, and the notion that anyone can become an instant hero or heel is something else that 'Fair Game' apparently gets right.
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.