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Film Review

Fair Game

The Bush administration did some bad things in its eight years, but one of the most shameful domestic deeds, in fact, a crime, was the outing of an undercover CIA agent in order to punish her husband. This sordid but fascinating story was widely reported, but most remember it now as just one of many examples of the abuse of power, especially by Dick Cheney. Valerie Plame had been with the CIA for nearly 20 years, under cover as a business woman in a venture capital firm. She had specialized in nuclear proliferation cases, including monitoring both Iraq and Iran's programs. Much of this work was overseas, including the Middle East, and some of it was dangerous. She married Joseph Wilson, a foreign service officer, who specialized in Africa and had been the ambassador to Gabon. Wilson had been the last American diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein before the invasion of Kuwait, and telling him he must withdraw his troops. Hussein personally threatened him, but Wilson sheltered over 100 Americans at the embassy and helped evacuate a thousand others just before the American invasion. Wilson was called "a true American hero" by President George HW Bush.

After the attack of 9/11, the new Bush administration decided that Saddam Hussein was involved, and should be punished, if not overthrown. Further, the administration was convinced that Hussein still had active weapons of mass destruction programs, including chemical, biological, and nuclear. In 2002, the CIA was ordered to intensify its investigations. A large shipment of aluminum tubes was thought by many in the White House to be used for uranium enrichment. One of the CIA officers to investigate this was Valerie Plame, whose conclusion was that these were not intended for enrichment. Then a document surfaced which indicated that Hussein was seeking to buy 500 tons of yellow cake (a concentrated uranium ore used for both nuclear power and weapons) from the African country of Niger. The CIA, needing to confirm this, looked for someone who could investigate. Plame recommended her husband, Wilson, because he had been to Niger many times and knew key government officials. Wilson went to Niger, but found no evidence whatsoever of any purchase, or even attempts at purchase of yellow cake. It was ultimately shown that the yellow cake document was a forgery, by persons still unknown.

But the Bush administration, especially the Vice President and Donald Rumsfeld (Secretary of Defense), was determined to find reasons to support an invasion of Iraq. Despite the CIA's conclusions about the aluminum tubes and yellow cake, the President and the Vice President both stated, in major speeches, that the the tubes and the purchase of yellow cake were proof that Saddam Hussein was actively pursuing nuclear weapons, and that if we did not act quickly, we would have a "mushroom cloud over an American city", according to the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Wilson and Plame were stunned to hear these claims but initially said nothing. When the White House continued to to promote this story, Wilson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, describing his trip to Niger and the lack of any evidence that the Iraqis' had attempted to purchase yellow cake. He said that the WMD programs had been abandoned after the first Iraq War (1990), and accused the Bush administration of "twisting facts" to exaggerate the threat of Saddam Hussein and justify the war. This was a bomb shell, and struck at the credibility of the President.

Cheney and his chief of staff, Scooter Libby, were furious, and decided to discredit Wilson by leaking highly classified information to a conservative columnist, Robert Novak. Novak promptly wrote a column critical of Wilson's expertise, and mentioned that his wife, a covert CIA agent, had sent him to Niger. It is a federal crime to disclose the identity of CIA and other classified agency agents. Plame and Wilson's lives were never the same afterward. Plame was forced to resign from the CIA, she received death threats, the CIA refused their requests for protection, and other conservative columnists and commentators attempted to smear them. Their marriage, already strained from Plame's long hours and risky assignments, began to crack apart. Wilson had retired from the foreign service a few years before, and was trying to get his consulting business off the ground. The controversy hurt badly, their income was jeopardized, all while trying to protect their two young children from the storm.

Fair Game tells this story, and its impact on a marriage. It is an intense, fast paced film, directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity), from the screen play by two brothers, Jeremy and John-Henry Butterworth. Sean Penn is perfectly cast as Joseph Wilson, and Naomi Watts nearly runs away with the film as Valerie Plame. The White House players are good, and Sam Shepard plays Plame's father. The film's story follows the chronology well, and periodically the dates are shown on the screen, in addition to archival footage of key speeches and events. Plame was a good soldier. Watts plays Plame's dedication, strength and determination well, including her decision to initially remain silent in the face of the White House's lies and smear campaign. The story is ugly, and the CIA's unwillingness to support her is infuriating. The strains on their marriage are well depicted, not in stormy fights as much as quiet resentments. We always want to see justice done on the screen, with the bad guys in jail or disgraced. But that isn't what happened here, and the film does not gloss over the events. It is rare to find any film based on historical events to be both accurate and riveting, and making a complex story comprehensible, as Liman does here. Fair Game is a highly intelligent thriller that will stay with you, and an important film, showing us the abuse of power that so characterized the second Bush administration. Playing at the Kabuki and the Embarcadero.

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