...And Out Come The Wolves

Shining light on the real world of intelligence, Fair Game tells the timely story of a good woman scorned in an age of insecurity

On The Town | Justin McCauley | February 2011

Before even addressing the mendacious political treachery that is probably the point of this contemporary fable, let’s get one thing straight: Whatever else it is, Fair Game is a fantastic spy movie – suspenseful, engaging, a tantalizing tale of cloak and dagger well told.

Fair Game, directed by Doug Liman, is based on two memoirs: veteran CIA case officer Valeria Plame’s book of the same name, and her husband Joseph Wilson’s The Politics of Truth. The film tells of Plame’s public outing by a senior Bush administration official immediately following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which left her career destroyed, her marriage and "assets" – i.e. contacts – she had recruited in the field missing or dead.  But before we get to any of that, it is also a fascinating, detailed look at what being a case officer is really like, and what happens to a family when they find themselves on the wrong side of people with almost limitless power.

The spy genre is one of the most beloved in cinema – from Hitchcock classics such as The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest to the Le Carré masterpiece The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and the countless adventures of Ian Flemming’s James Bond – espionage has captivated audiences, and become an excellent vehicle for stories of suspense, action and political intrigue. At the heart of the genre’s success is the mystique of the lifestyle of the secret agent. Filmmaker after filmmaker has attempted to open the door to the shadowy world that spies inhabit, and their depictions have varied.

Since the end of the Cold War that so absolutely defined the spy thriller, the genre has struggled to find a new identity. Some more recent treatments of history – like The Good Shepard or Charlotte Gray – have reached for realism and succeeded brilliantly. Others less so: Sensational action flicks like the Bourne series and Salt are entertaining, but in addition to being completely unrealistic, illustrate the genre’s trouble in shaking the WWII and Cold War paradigms, in particular the hallmark European settings. Many a spy-film buff has sworn that you simply can’t make a decent spy movie anywhere else.

Fair Game firmly ushers in the spy genre’s post-Cold War era.

To be sure, it is not the first; Syriana certainly planted the seeds with its emulation of case officer Robert Baer’s exploits, and Ridley Scott’s 2008 thriller Body of Lies explores the life of a CIA officer in post-Iraq Middle East. But the singular realism of Fair Game makes it a unique achievement.

Guns, gadgets, hand-to-hand combat and feats of physical daring-do have often characterized espionage films. These trademarks have existed ever since World War II (when American and British operatives did execute unbelievable and outlandish operations).  But the adventures of Bond-style secret agents are not what real-life intelligence officers actually do.

Valerie Plame (played superbly by Naomi Watts) is depicted doing her job sitting at a café table, in a conference room, in the front seat of a car – pitching betrayal. CIA officers don’t swing from buildings with machine guns or engage in epic bouts of unarmed combat – well, not normally anyway. They observe, study and figure out how to propose to someone that they risk their lives, betray their cause and spy for the Agency. Often, what’s most difficult isn’t even danger – great as it is – but coming to terms with the lies and manipulation case officers deal in, for the sake of a perceived greater good.

Fair Game is the first CIA film that resists the temptation to engage in any Hollywood shenanigans. This is in part because it is not simply a spy story, but a tale of political secrecy and betrayal that resulted not only in the exposure of Plame, but the lies of the Iraq War. Indeed, the duplicitous case for war and Plame’s own fate are inextricably intertwined.

In the run-up to Iraq, Plame was heading a counter-proliferation task force, and for obvious reasons, Iraq was always on the agenda. Plame’s superiors request that her husband, former ambassador and State Department hand Joe Wilson (Sean Penn, at the top of his game), be sent on a fact-finding mission to Niger to investigate claims that the African state was selling yellow cake uranium to Saddam Hussein. It turns out to be a false alarm, and Wilson submits his report, which should have been the end of it.

But the momentum towards war only picks up speed, and in his 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush made his case, citing intelligence that Saddam was seeking bomb-making materiel in Africa. Post-invasion, Wilson figures out that it was indeed Niger the president was referring to, and, incensed, writes a blistering op-ed in The New York Times entitled, "What I Didn’t Find in Africa."

Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff Scooter Libby, who had been the White House’s point man for pressuring the Agency to tell them what they wanted to hear, was infuriated: This is the era of "It’s unpatriotic to criticize the president during wartime".  In an almost Shakespearean display of perfidious vengeance, Libby, Karl Rove and other Bush cronies leak a classified document to conservative pundit Robert Novak, who then writes and op-ed for the Times that Plame is an Agency operative and that she sent her husband on a junket to Africa.

Thus ends an 18-year career with the CIA – her identity known to the world renders Plame useless as a covert operations officer. But the indomitable Wilson decides to fire back – a longtime diplomat, it is in his nature to debate, argue and be heard. He goes to the press to defend himself and his wife.

What is interesting, but upon reflection perhaps not all that surprising, is that Plame at first disapproves. She is a career CIA officer and loyalty to the Agency lies deep in her bones – another nuance that Fair Game captures brilliantly. Plame’s entire professional life has been one of secrecy, clandestine activity and top-secret classifications.  These personal qualities render spies more-or-less selfless; she never gets to brag about her achievements, talk about a good day at work or complain about a bad one – even though a good day could have been thwarting a terrorist attack and a bad one almost getting killed. Talking – exposing – goes against every sensibility she has, even when wronged, because in her world, when you’re wronged, you swallow it and stay in the shadows.

This bitter disagreement nearly destroys their marriage. However, after some soul searching with her father (the ever-compelling Sam Shepard), Plame decides to repair her marriage and come out full force against her betrayers, who incidentally, betrayed the entire country with their trumped up case for war.

The first major film made about the Bush administration since it left office, Fair Game tells a story that is now a part of American history. As much about the dubious justification for Iraq as about the plight of Valerie Plame, Fair Game can be viewed as All the President’s Men for the Bush era. It also carries a timely message about the nature of secrets, and the havoc they can wreak if exposed. Some of Fair Game’s most heart-wrenching moments are when we see what happens to the Iraqis connected to Plame after her identity is leaked. The consequence of some exposed secrets is only suffering – certainly no good, and no justice.

Fair Game is a spy film par excellence – its accuracy, complexity and humanity should become the textbook realist depiction of intelligence work for some time to come. Fair Game is also the beginning of the Bush legacy in popular culture – a damning initiation, and others are sure to follow that will solidify in the collective memories of those eight years. Donald Rumsfeld once said that history will absolve the Bush administration’s actions – so far, though, it’s not looking good.

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