'Fair Game' gets some things about the Valerie Plame case right, some wrong

By Walter Pincus and Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; E08

The movie "Fair Game," which arrived in theaters on Friday, promises to once again polarize politicians, pundits and the Washington power structure. Should we have invaded Iraq? Was Joe Wilson a true whistleblower? Did the White House exaggerate evidence of an imminent danger posed by Saddam Hussein? Was Valerie Plame really a covert CIA operative, or just a secretary?

Watching "Fair Game" is like unsealing a time capsule from 2002 to '06 and finding it full of yellowcake uranium, aluminum tubes, leaked classified memos, grand jury testimony and the ghost of Robert Novak. Washington denizens of the time -- Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, George W. Bush -- emerge in supporting roles from the swamp of disputed memory. In overheated, actual cable news clips, the politics of the Iraq war play out again, often in petty and exceedingly personal fashion.

"Inspired by true events," the film promises, and it delivers them in a compressed form, with considerable emotional impact, helped along by strong performances by Sean Penn (as Wilson) and Naomi Watts (as his wife), and every filmmaker's friend: dramatic license. But just how faithful is the Hollywood version to history -- when ideology and melodrama threaten to cloud the retelling?

As reporters who covered the Plame CIA leak affair, as it came to be known, we compared the reality of what unfolded in Washington in that era against the events that the screenwriters and director of "Fair Game" boiled into their narrative. The movie holds up as a thoroughly researched and essentially accurate account -- albeit with caveats. It's told from the point of view of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson, upon whose separate memoirs the script is based. The CIA and the Bush White House will clearly disagree with its telling of events.

But all politics aside, "Fair Game's" emotional core is how the leak shook the couple's marriage, and the characters portrayed by Penn and Watts will resonate with anyone who knows the real figures. Valerie Plame Wilson could not by law talk to screenwriters about her covert career -- "she would never betray the agency," director Douglas Liman said -- so her part of the story had to be constructed from other sources, including former intelligence officers. Aware that he was dealing with "people trained in subterfuge," Liman said he is confident he still captured the classified activities accurately.

But the couple opened their marital struggles to intimate examination. They describe their meetings with Liman and screenwriters as akin to therapy sessions, and the events on the screen sometimes painful to relive.

'An agency operative'

First, a primer. Flash back to February 2002, when then-Vice President Dick Cheney questioned his CIA briefer about some intelligence claiming that Iraq sought to buy 500 tons of uranium ore from Niger to build a nuclear weapon. The agency sent Joe Wilson, a former ambassador with experience in both Baghdad and Niger, to run down the allegation, originally obtained by the Italian intelligence service from a note that turned out to be a forgery. Wilson debunked it.

Nevertheless, almost a year after Wilson's trip, with U.S. troops already assembling in the Persian Gulf, Bush talked forebodingly in his 2003 State of the Union speech of a British intelligence report about Hussein seeking "significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

On July 6, 2003, with the war underway, a furious Wilson went public, penning a New York Times op-ed, appearing on "Meet the Press" and going on the attack in The Washington Post. For that time, his claim was explosive: the administration had twisted intelligence as a pretext for the invasion. The White House responded through its senior officials, disclosing the identity of his CIA operative wife to at least five journalists as a way to discredit Wilson, pushing the story to reporters that Valerie sent her husband on the trip to Niger to help his career as a business consultant.

Only Novak, in his syndicated column, took the extra step of disclosing her name: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction," he wrote. "Two senior administration officials told me that Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report."

Any film that examines the fragility of reputations will shape characters to fit storytelling techniques. It has to adopt a point of view rather than present an encyclopedic account. The first-draft script for "Fair Game" was so packed with episodic detail that it would have run to a stultifying three hours, Liman says. It was pared to 104 minutes.

As in most movies, there must be a hero and a villain. Valerie Plame Wilson, the glamorous spy, emerges as the heroic figure; her husband is more flawed, prone to bombast and righteous indignation, although his searing anger at the Bush administration comes across as justified.

And the villains? The White House, for retaliating against the Wilsons with a classic Washington hatchet job. And the CIA, for appearing to close down an operation to rescue from Iraq a group of cooperating nuclear scientists that the film says Plame was determined to save.

'Message to Baghdad'

After Novak's column appeared, neither of the Wilsons would acknowledge that she worked for the CIA. But the intense coverage, she felt, put her family in danger. At one point she asked the CIA to provide security at their Palisades home, but the agency refused -- both in reality and on the screen.

At Langley, according to the film, agency officials immediately shut Valerie out from her overseas operations when the Novak column appeared. They supposedly terminated the plan to provide safe passage for the Iraqi scientists -- who were adamant that no nuclear weapons program existed -- and thereby put the Iraqis' lives at risk.

"I've got to get a message to Baghdad," the onscreen Valerie insists to a superior. "I've got 15 scientists being taken to the border today!"

To which her boss responds, icily, "I don't know what you're talking about."

It's true that Valerie Plame Wilson was working with one of the CIA's teams trying to gather intelligence on Iraq WMD operations, but she evidently did not play the central role that the film puts her in. She was not directly part of the scientist program, according to agency officials.

The movie, on the other hand, depicts Valerie recruiting an Iraqi-born Cleveland physician to visit her scientist brother in Baghdad for information about Hussein's alleged nuclear program. In fact, the doctor was recruited by another CIA officer.

Although the film suggests that the blowing of Valerie's cover led directly to the shutdown of the Iraqi scientist exfiltration, an intelligence insider told us: "Something like this, if it was going on, wouldn't have been canceled for this reason."

'Still painful'

The movie effectively dispenses with the canard that Valerie Plame Wilson was not a covert operative . But there's still room to rehash the question of how Joe Wilson was picked for the unpaid Niger assignment. Here, the picture gets it right. The CIA says its counterproliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him; she did not "recommend" him. In fact, agency officials had used him for an earlier overseas assignment.

Valerie did introduce her husband at a meeting where the upcoming Niger trip was discussed. Confusion about her role came from a nighttime e-mail she dashed off to her boss (who had not been in on Joe's earlier assignment) to explain her husband's qualifications for the Niger trip. That e-mail became a key basis for the Republican-dominated Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to note Valerie's role in suggesting her husband for the assignment.

All along, Joe Wilson had been telling journalists that his wife had nothing to do with the Niger trip. In the movie, while their children scamper around them on a playground, he angrily confronts her with the Senate report itself, quoting its language: "The former ambassador's wife 'offered up his name' . . ."

"This is exactly what I've been denying . . . saying my wife did not send me on a junket," the on-screen Joe says.

"I was asked to write a recommendation," Valerie says. "What was I supposed to do?"

The Senate report armed Joe Wilson's enemies and effectively demolished his credibility in Washington. It also strained their marriage almost to the breaking point.

The film has Valerie separating from Joe, taking their young twins to her parents' home in Pennsylvania. But here, cinematic license is taken. "There were times that space was needed, but I didn't up-and-leave and take the children," Valerie said. "As any adult in a relationship knows, you can be in the same house and not together."

That era in their marriage was "fraught," she recalls. "It's still painful for me to watch the movie," Valerie says of reliving such moments in particular. "I found it excruciating at times to go through that."

'The most dramatic scene'

Liman, the director, says his favorite scene is a clash between husband and wife over pushing back against the White House with their own media campaign. Joe argues that he and Valerie should cooperate with Vanity Fair magazine on a article about them, including photographs.

The scene unfolds in their kitchen. "If this film is nominated for an Academy Award, that's the scene they will show," Liman says. "That's the most dramatic scene in the movie."

It's also the scene that seems almost certain to cause the most chatter among Washingtonians.

"Do I want my photograph in Vanity Fair? Is that the question?" Valerie says.

"This is our chance," he says.

"To do what?"

"To tell our side of the story."

What the movie doesn't show, or say, is that the couple's decision to pose for a picture in Vanity Fair, with Valerie looking Grace Kelly-like in a scarf and sunglasses in Joe's vintage Jaguar, became a PR debacle for them. At that point, the public had never seen her picture. It shocked their supporters and undermined her support from colleagues at the CIA. She later apologized to her agency co-workers.

Today the two are well-settled into new lives in Santa Fe. They appear pleased with the film. They also seem convinced that "Fair Game" will set the record straight, remove any blemishes to their reputations and revive anger over the country being misled into the Iraq war.

"For people who have short memories or don't read, this is the only way they will remember that period," Joe told us. "While obviously there's some Hollywood-isms in it... I think it clears up some of the confusion. Some of the chaff that was sown into the story over the years I think has been eliminated by this."

His wife, the onetime spy, put it this way: "If I'm on an airplane and my seatmate is watching this movie called 'Fair Game,' I won't cringe in embarrassment. . . . I am proud of it. It's a decent piece of film, and it's accurate."

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