News & Politics

Spy Clichés, Onscreen and in Life

A new movie about Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame feels almost irrelevant

The story of Valerie Plame’s outing as a CIA operative has been picked over so many times that it’s a wonder it took seven years to produce a movie about the scandal. The revelation of her identity by a shadowy Republican spin machine is meaty, salacious stuff—like The Bourne Identity meets W, with fewer outbreaks of violence and considerably more angst. Now that Fair Game—starring Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as her bombastic husband, Joe Wilson—has arrived, it almost feels unnecessary. There isn’t really anything new for director Doug Liman to reveal, so he relies heavily on archival cable-TV clips and visual jokes, such as casting an overly chubby actor to play White House adviser Karl Rove as well as emphasizing the spy intrigue Plame was forbidden from exploring in her memoir of the same name.

Fair Game opens, like so many other spy movies, in a mysteriously pristine office in Southeast Asia. Plame, on a covert operation, goes from lying smoothly about her Canadian heritage in one scene to manipulating a standoff with a terror suspect on a windy road in the next. (“If you get out of the car,” she tells the resisting man calmly but with a hint of menace and cliché, “I can’t protect you.”) The 9/11 terrorist attacks follow, along with a cable-news montage of murky threats: anthrax, nuclear attacks, chemical weapons. We see footage of the real Dick Cheney telling an interviewer that “we will take whatever action is necessary to defend our freedom and our security.” So far, so thriller-good.

The movie falters slightly when Plame and Wilson are shown in their natural habitat, drinking beer with their middle-class friends, who naturally ask Valerie why she’s always traveling to faraway countries and returning covered in bruises. “I work in venture capital,” Plame replies. “It’s actually pretty boring.” In fact, Plame’s day job is more 007 than 9 to 5, and she proves it by promptly penetrating an Iraqi physicist ring and irritating the Vice President by disputing whether or not some aluminum tubes are the kind you’d use to make centrifuges.

“It’s not a documentary,” Plame admitted at a private screening in Georgetown Wednesday. “This is a Hollywood picture at the end of the day. But overall, the movie is really accurate.” Her husband, however, seemed to disagree. “I think I have better hair than Sean Penn,” Wilson said.

We can assume that comment was a joke, given that Penn spends a large amount of time either smoothing back or shaking around his luxuriant gray mane. Like a weathervane, Penn’s hair reflects the mental state of his character: Don Draper smooth when he’s on the attack, scruffy-dog shaggy when he’s feeling threatened. But having Watts play Plame is a double-edged sword. She looks eerily similar to her real-life counterpart at times but struggles to move her emotional range beyond “vaguely disturbed,” which is disappointing when you’re hoping for fireworks, or at least a curse word or two.

Most viewers will be familiar with the rest of the story—from cable host Chris Matthews’s initial use of the phrase “fair game” to describe the Plame affair to the Machiavellian antics of a few powerful puppetmasters. “The goal of the [George W. Bush] administration was to utterly destroy us,” Wilson said last night. And the movie seems to echo that thought, with former Cheney aide Scooter Libby, played by David Andrews, stating: “This has become a trust issue for the President. We can’t get behind on this.”

Truth is stranger than fiction, and some of the anecdotes Plame and Wilson described last night might have made more compelling viewing than portrayals of a few doughy-faced, vaguely menacing presidential aides. “I spent a lot of time on Sid Blumenthal’s back porch, smoking cigars, drinking pomegranate juice, and figuring out how we could fight the evil empire,” Wilson said of whiling away the days after his wife was outed. Plame in turn described how supportive her neighbors were, searching for hours for a Hallmark card that read: “We’re sorry you’ve been outed.” Now, those are scenes we’d have liked to see.

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