On Sunday night at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, former CIA agent Valerie Plame and filmmaker Doug Liman introduced the first-ever director’s-cut screening of Liman’s 2010 film, “Fair Game,” a political drama about the unmasking of Plame at the start of the 2003 Iraq War. Written by brothers Jez and John Butterworth, the film is based on Plame’s book, “Fair Game,” and a book by her husband, former diplomat Joe Wilson, “The Politics of Truth.”
In 2002 Wilson was tapped by the CIA to gauge the veracity of a burgeoning theory about Niger supplying Saddam Hussein’s regime with yellowcake uranium, a granulated form of the element that can be further processed for the assembly of nuclear weapons. He returned from Africa incredulous Niger had sold yellowcake to Hussein.
On July 6, 2003, Wilson wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” where he argued intelligence was “twisted” to pave the way for war in Iraq.
On July 14, 2003, Plame’s CIA career was gutted when columnist Robert Novak disclosed her vocation in the Washington Post. “Wilson never worked for the CIA,” Novak wrote, “but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.”
Plame told the audience she was mortified by Novak’s column. She said her secret identity was leaked by the Bush Administration not only as retribution for her husband’s criticism of White House reasoning for going to war, but to make an example of her to keep others in the intelligence community from speaking out. “It was perceived to be a warning shot,” she said.
Concerning her entrance into U.S. intelligence, Plame told the audience she registered precisely what the CIA wanted on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for the work she wound up doing.
“I’m an ENTJ,” she said, “and that’s what they’re looking for in covert operatives.”
According to the Myers & Briggs Foundation website, an ENTJ presents the following traits:
“Frank, decisive, assume leadership readily. Quickly see illogical and inefficient procedures and policies, develop and implement comprehensive systems to solve organizational problems. Enjoy long-term planning and goal setting. Usually well-informed, well-read, enjoy expanding their knowledge and passing it on to others. Forceful in presenting their ideas.”
Plame disclosed little of her job training, though she did say a component of her time at “the Farm,” the CIA’s covert training school, involved tough paramilitary education.
“Fair Game” is eight years old. Liman embraced its vintage by asking the audience, “Why now?”
Both Liman and Plame proceeded to say the film has special resonance these days due to the behavior of the Trump administration.
Liman added in a bit of humor in that vein. “There’s a billboard near me in Manhattan, ‘Remember when Sarah Palin was scary?’”
At the heart of what Liman and Plame argued was Trump’s pardon of Scooter Libby, the ex-chief of staff for former Vice President Dick Cheney. Liman and Plame contend that pardon was meant to be a signal for political operatives like the recently jailed Paul Manafort that the president can pardon them, too.
Libby was a key player in the Bush administration, and is portrayed in Liman’s film as browbeating CIA staffers into looking at intelligence through a lens that depicts Saddam Hussein as actively working to build a nuclear weapon. Libby was suspected of being behind the leak to Novak, but so to were Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Bush senior advisor Karl Rove. An investigation into the leak led to the prosecution of only one Bush administration official — Libby — and not for the leak itself. In 2005 Libby was convicted of making false statements to federal investigators, obstruction of justice, and two counts of perjury. Bush later commuted his sentence.
Plame framed Libby’s pardon as offering a license for the president’s associates to behave as they wished. “You can lie, steal, and cheat on Trump’s behalf …” she said.
Asked by a member of the audience what she thought of relations between the U.S. and North Korea, Plame expressed her alarm at the past “feuding” between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, describing them both as “impulsive.” Given that both leaders have nuclear weapons at their disposal, Plame said, “It was absolutely horrifying to see this.”
Another question posed to Plame from the audience asked if looks or sensuality played a role in her intelligence gathering.
“That is not how we trained to operate,” she said, referring to it as “honeytrap” methodology. However, she did point out Jason Mathews, who penned the novel “Red Sparrow,” is a former CIA colleague. “Red Sparrow” is an espionage thriller about a Russian spy trained to seduce. It was made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence.
Liman gave the audience a window into his craftsmanship when he stressed how essential it is to shoot on location. Citing his film “The Bourne Identity,” Liman said if a scene is set in Paris, he shoots it in Paris, not Montreal. That philosophy becomes evident in the film. The dusty barrens of Niger and the hazy spires of Petronas Towers don’t look like blue-screen concoctions, but vividly real.
The film is about three hours long, and intercuts period news footage with Liman’s depiction of Plame and Wilson’s ordeal. Naomi Watts plays Plame, while Sean Penn plays Wilson. Both give convincing performances of complicated people whose careers and marriage are tossed in a pressure cooker.
“It tells the essential truth of what happened,” Plame said.
Liman summed up the film by stating Trump provided the final necessary element: “It took the pardon of Scooter Libby for me to say now the story is complete.”