Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fair Game

There is the movie I wished Fair Game would be and there is the movie I feared Fair Game would be. My wish for Fair Game was an epic indictment of the corrupt neo-con juggernaut within the Bush administration using the outing of CIA NOC operative Valerie Plame as a starting point for documenting what co-pResident Dick Cheney actually presided over: a criminal enterprise. Since this is exactly what I had spent years documenting in the first and second editions of American Judas, my hope was that this movie would incorporate the same scope as my papers. I envisioned at least a three hour running time, the kind of political movie Oliver Stone used to make like JFK and Nixon. My fear was that Fair Game would be completely devoid of any political focus or foreign intrigue. I was worried that the movie would solely focus on the relationship between Valerie Plame and her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Any controversial element of their stories that coincided with neo-con criminality would be either brused aside or minimized as an unfortunate accident that upset their happy family life.

The actual movie Fair Game, as directed by Doug Liman of Bourne Identity fame, is neither of those films. While the scope is not as ambitious as I envisioned, it does not shy away from politics or foreign intrigue. In fact, I believe it is because there is such a heavy plot focus on the political events and machinations swirling around Plame and Wilson that when problems develop between them concerning their marriage and the focus of the movie switches to their relationship, it made me care more about them as human individuals screwed over by a Machiavellian government. Plus, the political focus within the plot does not reduce the movie to an academic exercise in history. This is a suspenseful movie with a tight script that knows exactly where it's taking its audience and Liman knows how to make it an exciting journey.

A good example of this excitement is in one of the first scenes in the movie. Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) is undercover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as a Canadian venture capitalist hoping to make a sales pitch on behalf of her company to a successful Malaysian executive. Her attempt appears to be thwarted by a twenty-something cousin of the executive, who claims he is authorized to hear her pitch on his behalf. She is able to arrange another meeting with him in a more private setting. As he sits in the dark in her car parked on a hill overlooking the city wondering who this attractive blond is, the young man is startled to observe that they are being followed. When he makes a motion to split, Plame grabs him by the arm and tells him that if he runs she can no longer protect him. Then she reveals her true intention: to use him as an asset for obtaining intelligence on the man his uncle is working for - black market nuclear technology proliferator A.Q. Khan. For anyone who has read American Judas, this man and his "Nuclear Walmart" needs no introduction.

But as much as I would have enjoyed American Judas: The Movie, I can understand why after introducing this set-up, Liman moved these characters into the background of Plame's CIA clandestine work to tighten the scope. Most people simply aren't aware of the details surrounding the outing and ultimate destruction of Valerie Plame's CIA cover company Brewster, Jennings and Associates. Sure, many right-wingers howl over their perception of these details, harping over the fact that Dick Armitage was the initial leaker and try to portray this as an innocent mistake chalked up to "gossip". But if the movie had incorporated the revelations in Sibel Edmonds' 2009 sworn deposition regarding how Armitage and Marc Grossman at the State Department leaked the identity of Plame's cover company to the target of an FBI investigation back in the summer of 2001 to counter this argument, the focus would shift from domestic repression against the backdrop of war abroad to the international criminality that made the war possible.

So Liman does a nice balancing act of keeping Valerie Plame the focal point of the story while keeping political events and international intrigue in the background. From the CIA conference rooms in Langley, Virginia in 2002 where pressure from the Office of the Vice President over a report from Niger indicating the sale of uranium to Iraq that the CIA had previously debunked as a forgery necessitates further investigation, Plame is asked if she can refer this assignment to her husband Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), since he was previously an Ambassador to Niger. Wilson accepts and comes back from Niger with news the CIA already knew and Cheney doesn't want to hear: there was no Iraqi purchase of Nigerian uranium. Cheney never appears except in news footage, but Lewis "Scooter" Libby is his point guard constantly driving his agenda to the basket by any means necessary, and David Andrews does an excellent job conveying his relentless drive. When Wilson sees his work disregarded as George W. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address uses the Niger Forgeries as part of a justification for preemptive war in Iraq, he writes an editorial for the New York Times calling the administration out on their falsehood.

The administration responds by virtually declaring war on Joseph Wilson. Though his wife's CIA identity is supposed to be protected, in the war to protect their phony rationale for regime change in Iraq, the Bush administration makes Valerie Plame, in the words of Karl Rove, "fair game". The attack is relentless in the media, with talking heads from FOX and other outlets partial to Bush propaganda leading an assault of insults and false accusations questioning their loyalty and patriotism. The movie does an excellent job of illustrating how this wears the couple down and threatens them. Watts and Penn both traverse this emotional cauldron brilliantly, allowing the audience to feel their frustrations while rooting for them to fight back.

Since the DVD was just released this Tuesday, I'll be curious to see what kind of extra features might be available, both for entertainment and factual purposes. But even without extras, I recommend everyone see this movie.

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