Published December 05, 2010
Intrigue-obsessed Washingtonians may find a decent thriller in the box-office flop "Fair Game," the fictionalized account of ex-spy Valerie Plame's outing from the CIA after her husband's editorial criticizing the Bush administration, but a recent Washington Post editorial warns not to take much truth from it.
But while the Post can take pride in its separation of its editorial from its news pages, it may want its movie reviewers, news team and editorial board to get on the same page before publishing conflicting accounts of history and Hollywood's take on it.
Nearly a month after the film was released and the newspaper wrote a glowing review, the Post's editorial board has penned an op-ed warning movie-goers to not be re-educated by the "inspired" events told in the film starring Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as Plame's husband Joe Wilson.
"'Fair Game,' based on books by Mr. Wilson and his wife, is full of distortions -- not to mention outright inventions," write the editors, noting they aren't usually in the business of movie reviews.
"To start with the most sensational: The movie portrays Ms. Plame as having cultivated a group of Iraqi scientists and arranged for them to leave the country, and it suggests that once her cover was blown, the operation was aborted and the scientists were abandoned. This is simply false," the editors write, turning to their own news department's reporting to discredit the film.
Oddly, however, a month ago on the day the movie premiered, the Post's Style section published a review that says, "The most explosive charge leveled in 'Fair Game' is that Iraqi assets developed by Plame were hung out to dry and may have lost their lives after the leak. Those characters reportedly are composites, but they represent a sobering reminder of what was at stake beyond the political theater staged by way of Fox News and MSNBC."
Two days after the review, the newspaper published an article by one of its reporters named by the editorial board, that says "the movie holds up as a thoroughly researched and essentially accurate account -- albeit with caveats."
Among the largest of those is that while the film is based on separate memoirs by Plame and Wilson, Plame couldn't legally speak to screenwriters about her CIA experiences so the director based the rendering on interviews with ex-intelligence or "people trained in subterfuge."
The article also notes that despite the film's suggestion that Iraqi scientists became sacrificial lambs during their "exfiltration" from the country, an intelligence insider told us: "Something like this, if it was going on, wouldn't have been canceled for this reason."
The movie review, while declaring the story as "all-too-familiar recent history" coupled with captivating personal drama, also states that those with "a distaste for ax-grinding or score-settling needn't worry" since the director "steers clear of re-litigating the leak of Plame's name to the media during the George W. Bush administration."
Two days later, the Post reporter appears to re-litigate the details with a flashback -- that Wilson debunked the claim that Iraq sought to buy 500 tons of uranium ore from Niger to build a nuclear weapon but a year later Bush used the claim in his 2003 State of the Union speech to justify war.
"For that time, his claim was explosive: the administration had twisted intelligence as a pretext for the invasion. The White House responded through its senior officials, disclosing the identity of his CIA operative wife to at least five journalists as a way to discredit Wilson, pushing the story to reporters that Valerie sent her husband on the trip to Niger to help his career as a business consultant," the reporter wrote.
Yet in the op-ed on Friday, the editors wrote, "In fact, an investigation by the Senate intelligence committee found that Mr. Wilson's reporting did not affect the intelligence community's view on the matter, and an official British investigation found that President George W. Bush's statement in a State of the Union address that Britain believed that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger was well-founded."
A month ago, the Post reviewer, who called the film "a lean, well-crafted, engaging thriller" that ends in "an emotionally devastating climax that lands with an enraging shock, despite the fact that it's so well known by now," recalls a scene in the film of Plame espying "I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby roaming the CIA halls, presumably on orders from his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney" to get the agency to move on finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Libby, formerly Cheney's chief of staff, was convicted in 2007 of lying to authorities and obstructing the investigation into the 2003 leak of Plame's identity. His two-and-a-half-year sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush.
Without referencing its own review, the Post's op-ed noted that the film "resells the couple's story that Ms. Plame's exposure was the result of a White House conspiracy. A lengthy and wasteful investigation by a special prosecutor found no such conspiracy -- but it did confirm that the prime source of a newspaper column identifying Ms. Plame was a State Department official, not a White House political operative."
While Watts' may share an uncanny resemblance to Plame, of which editors, reviewers and reporters can disagree, nearly a month after the movie's release, box office reports show that the film has earned $6.2 million domestically and $12.2 million overall. It cost $22 million to produce.
The editors offer their explanation why the film may have been a dud across the country if not among D.C.'s denizens.
"Hollywood has a habit of making movies about historical events without regard for the truth; 'Fair Game' is just one more example. But the film's reception illustrates a more troubling trend of political debates in Washington in which established facts are willfully ignored.
"Mr. Wilson claimed that he had proved that Mr. Bush deliberately twisted the truth about Iraq, and he was eagerly embraced by those who insist the former president lied the country into a war. Though it was long ago established that Mr. Wilson himself was not telling the truth -- not about his mission to Niger and not about his wife -- the myth endures. We'll join the former president in hoping that future historians get it right."