At the Director’s Premiere of Fair Game last night, we were treated not only to a suspense-filled glimpse into the shadowed corridors of political power but also to a panel discussion featuring the real life protagonists of the film’s story. The panel, which followed the screening, included the director, Doug Liman (best known as the director of the Bourne trilogy, among many others), former CIA operative Valerie Plame, her husband, former Ambassador and diplomat Joseph Wilson, and Emily Bazelon of Slate Magazine.
Fair Game is a riveting thriller based on the autobiography of real-life undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame (played by Naomi Watts), whose career was destroyed when her covert identity was exposed by a politically-motivated press leak. As a senior manager in the CIA’s Counter-Proliferation Division (“CPD”), Valerie played an integral part in the investigation into the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Valerie’s husband, diplomat Joe Wilson (played by Sean Penn) was asked to join the investigation to substantiate an alleged sale of “yellowcake,” a specific type of partly-enriched uranium, from Niger to Iraq. When the administration ignored his findings and used the issue to support the call to war, Wilson wrote a New York Times editorial outlining his conclusions, which ignited a firestorm of controversy. In an effort to prevent the notion that the US may have rushed to war based on unsubstantiated evidence from entering the public consciousness, members of the Bush administration fought back by calling into question the character and motivations of Joe Wilson. As this story gained traction, the administration ultimately leaked the identity of Valerie Plame to the press to try to (a) discredit Wilson and his claims that he had been sent to Niger by the Vice President’s office (and not by his wife, for political reasons) and (b) to distract from the claim that all thorough reviews of the credible evidence seemed to suggest that the alleged sale of enriched uranium had never taken place.
The film is anchored by great performances from Namoi Watts and Sean Penn, and anyone who has seen and enjoyed the cinematographic work in the Bourne films will be pleased to find the same fast-paced, thoughtful DP work from Mr. Liman once again.
During the panel discussion that followed the film, Plame and Wilson discussed the decision by Wilson to write the Op-Ed piece in the Times and the controversy that followed. Plame explained the urgency with which the CIA was being asked to produce intelligence in the months leading up to the the Iraq war, saying, “Intelligence takes time – to vet your sources and corroborate them – and that time was not being given to the CIA.” And although she did seem to concede that missteps were taken by the CIA in addition to the other parties involved, she also made sure to point out that the CIA is an easy scapegoat when she joked, “It’s easy to blame the CIA. What are they going to say? Nothing.” When asked what steps could be taken to avoid a situation like this from happening in the future Plame went on to say, “Look what’s happening in Iran, the body politic relies on public amnesia sometimes.”
On the discord between the increasingly polarized political parties in this country, Wilson commented that “We now really, genuinely dislike each other because of our political views rather than just disagreeing, and there is something wrong with that. There is a need to understand where the other side is coming from.” As an example of a previous era’s willingness to look beyond red v. blue, Liman pointed out that “People forget that Joe Wilson was appointed ambassador by a Republican president.” But now, as Wilson eloquently summed it up at one point, political discourse in America has essentially devolved into one side screaming “Fuck you!” and the other yelling “Fuck you” back.
Still, as the character Joe Wilson points out towards the end of the movie, in what stuck us as the core message of the film, democracy is what you make of it. Paraphrasing Ben Franklin, the film version of Joe Wilson tells a group of young students the story of a woman who stops Ben Franklin as he’s walking home from writing the constitution to ask, “Mr. Franklin, what type of government have you given us?” To which Franklin responded, Wilson tells the class, “A Republic, ma’am. If you can keep it.” The point being that our form of governance relies upon active and informed citizens to occasionally rise up and act in order to ensure that power is not abused, no matter the perceived odds against you. Or, as Wilson later said in the panel, “good citizenship counts, and you can survive it.”
The director’s screening was held at the iconic Paris Theater and the panel discussion was moderated by Judith Resnik, the Arthur Liman Professor of Law at Yale Law School. The Yale Law School Arthur Liman Public Interest Program was founded in the name of noted public servant and Yale alum Arthur Liman (Doug’s father) to support the work of law students, law school graduates, and students from six universities, all of whom work to respond to problems of inequality and to improve access to justice.
Fair Game opens in select cities on November 5, 2010 (Runtime – 104 min).