Thursday, November 11, 2010

Misdirection: Fair Game

Midway through Fair Game’s Daily Show-esque montage of news-show talking heads disparaging Valerie Plame’s status and performance as an agent for the CIA, the woman sitting behind me gasped in exasperation. Of course she did. By that point of Doug Liman’s film about the 2003 scandal in which the Bush administration intentionally exposed Plame’s identity in order to divert attention from the shaky evidence it used to build a case for war in Iraq, we’ve already watched Plame walking with purpose through CIA headquarters and giving orders to underlings; acting as the voice of reason in tense interrogations; taking on tough and dangerous assignments; working long hours in service of her country while her loving husband and adorable children miss her at home; and, upon having her cover blown, caring less about her torpedoed career than about the safety of several Iraqis who risked their lives to cooperate with the CIA. To question this woman’s service by suggesting she was little more than a secretary, and a poorly performing one at that, is outrageous. But there’s just one problem: The woman being disparaged in those archival news clips and the person being heroically portrayed by Naomi Watts in this dramatization are not one and the same. And whenever Fair Game forgets that, it misses the point it otherwise makes so clearly.

See, the unlawful exposure of Valerie Plame’s CIA career is a story of villainy, not victimization – unless you’re thinking about the American soldiers who lost their lives to a real threat (America’s multifaceted opposition in the Middle East) while responding to an imagined one (Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction). The makers of Fair Game know this. Oh, how they know this. In the film’s flag-waving finale, Plame’s outspoken husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), looks around at a classroom of college students and points out how disgraceful it is that none of them can recall the 13 words from President George W. Bush that sent America to war but that all of them know the name of his wife. Through this little example, Wilson underlines how the Bush administration successfully manufactured a diversion from the faulty logic and/or downright duplicity by which the Iraq War was made to seem unavoidable. Yet Fair Game proves unable to respect its own wisdom. It’s not enough, apparently, to depict Bush’s top strategist, Karl Rove, orchestrating a systematic effort to discredit and intimidate anyone who would speak out against the administration’s war plans. Fair Game must also demonstrate that the Bush administration attacked one of its best and brightest. And in making Plame an outright hero, rather than allowing her to be a canary in the coal mine of dirty politics, the film ignores what it otherwise seeks to prove: that in the big picture Plame’s CIA career is incidental.

So while some viewers might object to the inherent bias of a film that is based on books by Plame and Wilson, and others might seethe at the aforementioned hypocrisy of criticizing the misdirection of the Bust administration while offering up a different tangent from “what matters” by devoting so much time to Plame’s personal saga, what I find particularly irritating about Fair Game is the way it turns Plame into an archetypal movie heroine. She’s so smart, so poised, so professional, so essential, so determined, so selfless, so strong and so fucking principled. There she is working at the CIA late at night when everyone else has gone home (and we know they’ve gone home because all the lights are out except hers). There she is pulling a Jason Bourne-esque escape from her security escort just so she can locate her superior and urge him to take immediate action to get her informants to safety. There she is telling the story about how during her CIA training she was the one operative who couldn’t be broken. And there she is not flinching as a massive explosion fills the screen behind her … OK, so the last one isn’t true. But it wouldn’t have been entirely out of character. And, sure, for all I know this depiction of Plame is spot on, even though the specific events are obviously fictionalized. (If the CIA didn’t even want to release the year Plame joined the agency, I think we can be pretty safe in assuming that the CIA didn’t declassify any of her missions in support of the film.) The problem isn’t if this is accurate, though. The problem is that it feels contrived, as if Plame is being poured into a standard heroine mold, probably because Hollywood doesn’t know how to do it any other way, or maybe because given the current unemployment crisis the screenwriters felt it important to establish that the CIA didn’t lose just any agent, it lost its prized recruit.

What’s frustrating is that all of this distracts from the point that Fair Game sometimes makes quite well: that the exposure of Plame, and the suggestion that she sent Wilson to Niger as some kind of nepotistic perk, was nothing more than a smokescreen obscuring the truly important issues. The best scene in the film features Plame and Wilson arguing in their kitchen, with Wilson interrupting his wife, slapping his hand on the counter and screaming, “Valerie! Valerie! If I yell louder, does that make me right?!” It’s hard to imagine a better summation of the design and cost of the messaging tactics of the Bush administration, which repeatedly proved that reason and evidence are inadequate in the face of loud, unrelenting insistence. Likewise, the scene in which a sinister Scooter Libby (played by an enjoyably cartoonish David Andrews) coerces a CIA agent into admitting that he might be wrong about his conclusion that Hussein isn’t creating nuclear weapons depicts what so many people to the left of the far right have long held to be true: the Bush administration didn’t decide to go to war because of evidence of WMDs, it looked for evidence of WMDs because it had already decided to go to war. It’s this context that makes Plame relevant, not the other way around.

And that brings us back to that archival news footage of talking heads blasting Plame: Liman errs by including it for three reasons. First, he falsely suggests that the people in those clips are talking about a glorified, fictionalized character who wouldn’t be created for another several years, which is an unfair bait and switch. Second, he thus gives the impression that the wrongness of the smear campaign is related to the quality of Plame’s job performance and position, which would mean that if Plame had been nothing more than a lousy secretary that the Bush administration’s tactics wouldn’t have been so egregious, which is false. Third and most important, giving us this bitter taste of these real events makes the melodrama over Plame’s marital struggles with Wilson seem trivial, which of course it is. By the end of Fair Game, it’s obvious that Valerie Plame’s CIA career shouldn't have become a subplot in American history. Then again, it’s also obvious that it shouldn’t have been the main plot of a movie either.


Tony Dayoub said...

While FAIR GAME was nowhere near the propaganda piece GREEN ZONE was (a movie which could play along with this one in some liberal double bill), in some ways it's worse. At least GREEN ZONE double-downs on the outlandishness of its premise by fictionalizing much of what we see to make its argument, but the more time passes since I saw FAIR GAME, the more angry I get at how it cherry-picks what "truths" it wants to tell, while hiding behind the euphemistic "creative license" excuse for everything else.

I mean, really, was Plame really the superspy as portrayed here? Why wasn't Armitage's role in this revealed until an end credit title card?

I thought the movie worked best when it explored the family tensions arising between Plame and Wilson, but otherwise it disappointed me. As a liberal, I feel we have enough fact to back up our charges against the Bush Administration that we don't need "fiction" undermining our just arguments, or opening us up to attacks of faulty history from the right.

Jason Bellamy said...

the more time passes since I saw FAIR GAME, the more angry I get at how it cherry-picks what "truths" it wants to tell, while hiding behind the euphemistic "creative license" excuse for everything else... As a liberal, I feel we have enough fact to back up our charges against the Bush Administration that we don't need "fiction" undermining our just arguments, or opening us up to attacks of faulty history from the right.

Tony: I agree with second part without the anger of the first part. Which is to say, I wasn't angered only because in that respect Fair Game delivered exactly what I expected it would. I was resigned to it. But I certainly understand your anger, even if I didn't feel it. (Wait, did I just essentially say that I feel your pain? I'm more of a lefty than I thought!)

It's hard for me to say what I think the film did well. Other than scenes here and there, it's really something of a disaster. I thought the family tensions in relation to the stress of the smear campaign were well done, but I rolled my eyes early in the film when Wilson goes into his "I don't know where you go" monologue, as if their relationship had ever been any other way. More irritating are the scenes in which Plame gets flustered when her friends mention Iraq, as if the woman whose entire career is based on pretending finds is especially challenging to bluff her way through dinner parties.