Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn
Review: 4.5 stars (of five)
Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are at the top of their game in this low-key thriller that follows a marriage caught in a media maelstrom more than the cloak and dagger workings of intelligence and government.
It’s a pretty well-known story: When former ambassador Joe Wilson publicly called out the Bush White House for cherry-picking intelligence (a genteel expression for “lying”) to justify invading Iraq (a genteel expression for “stepping into quicksand”). the White House set out to discredit Wilson to change the subject. This, thanks to the late and unlamented columnist Robert Novak, simultaneously outted his wife, Valerie Plame, as a high-ranking CIA agent. It was a craven attack against two good and loyal Americans, and drew them condemnation from a misinformed public, death threats, a loss of livelihood, and very nearly the death of their marriage. Plame and Wilson each wrote books about it, once the lawsuits and chaos had subsided, and it’s these volumes (Fair Game and The Politics of Truth) that form the basis of the movie.
So how does Doug Liman, who directed the taut, shaky-cam masterpiece The Bourne Identity, the slick and violent Mr. & Mrs. Smith and the slacktastic Swingers, turn this story into a film? By getting really good actors and putting us up close as their lives melt. In balancing the White House battle, the personal strife and marital discord and, through excellent use of histrionic news clips from the era, Liman creates effective, fascinating cinema from this strange mix of political intrigue and relationship drama.
Watts is excellent as Plame, a dedicated and self-contained agent thrown into a nightmare glare of publicity, ill-served by the government and agency she’s dedicated her adult life to. Penn captures Joe Wilson, whom the script and performance depict as a bit overbearing and self-righteous—but deservedly, rightly so. It’s a more layered role than that of Plame, but the two work well together, particularly as the public tensions unravel their private life.
The movie hews pretty closely to the books, though some dramatic liberties are taken, particularly with depictions of Plame’s covert work, which she does not write about or discuss. While the film ramps up her involvement with a group of Iraqi scientists, and wholly invents a link between Plame’s public nightmare and their fates in Bagdad, it’s a good cinematic shorthand for the real damage done by Scooter Libby, other White House goons and Novak (not portrayed in the film). Which of Plame’s covert contacts over the years were truly jeopardized by revealing her identity hasn’t been disclosed, but destroying an 18-year career as a “non-official cover” agent is not without consequences. For those who like to sift their fact from fiction, the Washington Post does a nice job of fact-checking the film, and finding it mostly, and essentially, accurate.
The film is not entirely satisfying—the final moment of victory is Plame’s testimony before Congress which (like the many news clips providing brilliant post-9/11 atmosphere throughout) is the actual footage. After nearly two hours of watching these noble and heroic Americans struggle against the darker nature of their own government, it is satisfying to see the real Plame have her moment, but the portion of the testimony we hear before the fade is rather sedate, and as a climax, reading a statement to a bunch of senators is … lacking.
Still, it’s the victory Plame got, in addition to the vindication her book and this film provide. It’s a very good movie, which does a great job of capturing a tense and painful period of American history while focusing on this particular highly publicized story.