Fair Game will be responsible for more theater evacuations than a fire alarm. Expanding to theaters nationwide on Friday, director Doug Liman’s ode to former CIA agent Valerie Plame, who claimed in 2003 that Bush administration officials had leaked her name and undercover status to the press in response to her husband Joe Wilson’s debunking part of their case for the Iraq War, is more interested in rewriting than in retelling history.
Based on the couple’s memoirs, Fair Game paints Wilson (Sean Penn) and Plame (Naomi Watts) as the smartest people in Washington. Wilson is smarter than people who mispronounce Niger and think that Iraq could’ve ordered uranium there. Plame is smarter than people who think that Iraq’s illicit aluminum tubes are used to enrich uranium. And both are smarter than the press and public to whom the White House sells a war.
But the smartest person attached to this project is Nicole Kidman for quitting.
One of the movie’s least plausible claims is that the Iraq War was based on false intelligence and that the Bush administration targeted the Wilsons for whistle-blowing because the Wilsons in their infinite wisdom had revealed the truth to the public. Here it does what it accuses the Bush administration of doing: exaggerating the importance of a report, which President Bush cited in his 2003 State of the Union address, that Iraq had bought uranium from Niger. Forget that Iraq had admitted in 1995 to hiding weapons of mass destruction. Or that President Clinton had bombed it in 1998 for misleading UN inspectors. In Fair Game world, the Iraq War rests on sixteen words from a speech.
Fair Game blames public skepticism of the Wilsons’ story and subsequent CIA leak investigation itself on none other than conservative media bias. Near the end of the movie, for instance, “reporters” accost Wilson at his home, asking whether he’s “against our troops” and telling him that his wife is “a nobody.” In another scene, a character that IMDB.com calls “rightwing reporter,” and that Wilson calls both “reporter” and “hack,” barges into a lunch meeting to tell Joe’s potential clients that Wilson and his wife are “traitors.” I’d be shocked if either had happened. What journalist blows his shot at a major interview — not to mention his credibility — to hurl insults at a potential source in public? That makes about as much practical sense as green-lighting Glitter 2.
But it squares with how the Wilsons — and special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, for that matter — treated the press during the case itself. For 1982’s Intelligence Identities Protection Act to apply, an agent has to have been working undercover overseas — and to have been knowingly outed. Fitzgerald had to prove the leakers’ malicious intent, but ran up against a journalistic code that bars reporters from disclosing their confidential sources. When Fitzgerald subpoenaed reporters who knew the leakers’ identities to testify to the Grand Jury, New York Times’ Judith Miller asked Plame to submit an affidavit requesting that she serve no jail time for contempt of court. Plame declined and Miller spent 3 months in jail to protect her confidential White House source. To Fitzgerald and the Wilsons, spies’ secrets were worth protecting, but journalists’ weren’t.
Fair Game sidesteps the real scandal here — not the Bush administration’s behavior but Fitzgerald’s. Since Plame had been working at CIA headquarters, and since Fitzgerald couldn’t read the minds of the supposed White House leakers, it was never clear — and impossible to prove — that there’d been actual lawbreaking. Fitzgerald’s investigation became an effort to catch White House officials covering up a crime that might never have happened.
Fair Game makes the valid point that government can be incompetent. But it forgets that the Wilsons were part of the government and therefore not immune to criticism. Based on a San Francisco upstart and genuine hero, Penn’s last political drama made a respectable profit, but Fair Game’s best chance to make big box-office numbers is to convert the gross to pesos.
Dorian Davis is a former MTV HITS star and MTV News content developer-turned-Flaming Politics blogger and Libertarian writer. Published in Business Week, NY Daily News, XY & more. National Journalism Center alum. NYU and CUNY grad. Journalism professor at Marymount Manhattan College.