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Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010

Fair Game

Naomi Watts, Sean Penn deliver the Valerie Plame story

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The strange case of Valerie Plame was one of the most memorable episodes in the unraveling of President Bush’s Iraq strategy. Plame, a model-gorgeous secret agent, was exposed as a CIA operative by right-wing columnist Robert Novak after Vice President Cheney’s aide, Scooter Libby, leaked her identity. It was part of a White House plot to discredit Plame’s husband, the distinguished diplomat Joseph Wilson IV, for challenging Bush’s contention that Iraq purchased “yellowcake,” a crucial ingredient for atomic bombs, from the uranium-rich but otherwise impoverished African nation of Niger.

Fair Game
, a political thriller based on Plame’s memoir, stars Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn in an Oscar-worthy supporting role as Wilson. Watts is a plausible physical stand-in for Plame and plays her character with poise and calm as an agent in the field, and with tears and recriminations as the media lynch mob threatens her marriage. The knee-jerk babblers of radio and cable accused her and her husband of lying and treason. Plame kept silent at first, leaving Wilson, embodied with indignant dignity by Penn, to fight a lonely battle in the media.

No doubt director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) and screenwriters Jez and John Butterworth took some dramatic license in telling the story. Fair Game is not a documentary, but is “based” on Plame’s account, which has largely been vindicated by history and the American judicial system, which convicted Libby of perjury and obstruction of justice.

The facts, mirrored in the movie, run like this: In a post-9/11 environment (whose tension is illustrated by archival news footage), Plame and her “counter-proliferation” team were responsible for analyzing two reports regarding Saddam’s nuclear weapons program. One concerned Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes, which Bush administration officials wanted to cast as components for nuclear centrifuges but Plame believed were only artillery barrels. More important was the rumor that Saddam had acquired 500 tons of yellowcake—which became one of the reasons presented to the world for the invasion of Iraq. Given her husband’s diplomatic service in Africa and familiarity with Niger, Plame and her team asked Wilson to fly to the country to investigate. Although Wilson reported that the yellowcake rumor was false, he was pointedly ignored by the administration. When Wilson went public, an insidious scheme of revenge was organized. If Wilson wouldn’t shut his mouth, he and his wife would suffer the consequences.

Fair Game
accurately perceives the mind-set of administration officials who, in their determination to invade Iraq, took a cavalier attitude toward reality. It also nails the media-powered, politically driven, blog-infested atmosphere of vituperation and lies, ignorance and anxiety, that has only grown thicker in the years since. Plame and Wilson were pilloried for doing their duty as public servants. Fortunately, the 24/7 cycle of demagoguery hasn’t entirely obliterated the rule of law. The system, whose leaders were determined to break Plame and Wilson, finally corrected itself—at least to a degree. But although Libby was convicted (Bush commuted his sentence), the masters of deceit behind the smear campaign against Plame are earning hefty fees on the speaking circuit, where they continue to spin reality into a tapestry of lies.
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