by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Fair Game, a 2010 production based on the joint memoirs of former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson and his wife, former CIA agent Valerie Plame, and how their relatively comfortable lives in Washington, D.C. (not that there were ever there much — both were out of the country so often, she on clandestine assignments with the CIA and he on meetings with world leaders and businesspeople for the independent consulting firm he started after he quit the State Department, that at one point in the movie they grimly joke that their refrigerator drop, covered in Post-It Notes to indicate their comings and goings, has become a dead-letter drop) were shattered as a result of the controversy over the U.S. war in Iraq. Wilson was sent by the CIA in late 2001 to the African country of Niger (correctly pronounced “Knee-JEHR” to distinguish it from the much larger, richer and generally more significant African country of Nigeria, though aside from Wilson himself most of the people in this movie get it wrong) to confirm a report that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had placed an order of 500 metric tons of yellowcake — the first step in refining pitchblende to extract uranium — in order to fuel the nuclear weapons he was supposedly building.
Wilson went on his trip to Niger because he knew either the present or past prime minister, foreign minister and minister of mines, and he quickly determined there was no way the report could be true — Niger had only two uranium mines, one wasn’t operational and the other was controlled by a French company which would have had to sign on to any deal to send that much uranium ore to Iraq; what’s more, there was only one road out of Niger over which the stuff could have been shipped, and though the countryside was sparsely populated there were enough tribespeople there who would have noticed the long convoy of trucks that would have been necessary to deliver the ore out of Niger and start it on its journey to Iraq. Wilson eventually determined that the story about Saddam Hussein trying to buy large amounts of yellowcake from Niger was based on two crudely forged documents from Italy, and having thoroughly debunked the tale he was astonished to hear in President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address that “the British government has recently learned that Saddam Hussein has sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
At first Wilson thought Bush must have been referring to another African country besides Niger — at least two others produce uranium in quantity — but when he found out the President’s speech was indeed a reference to Niger, he realized that this was at least one provable lie the Bush administration had put out to justify attacking Iraq on the basis that they had weapons of mass destruction. So he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa” — and the administration responded by leaking the name of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, and “outing” her as a CIA agent. (They also suggested that Plame had got him the offer to make the trip as a “junket,” which she hadn’t — and a trip on a volunteer mission to a country that “won” a poll as the least livable in the entire world, a reputation confirmed in the movie when the cold-water faucet in Wilson’s hotel bathroom dispenses nothing at all and the hot-water faucet dispenses brown mud, hardly counted as a “junket.”)
What’s more, they kept up a barrage of lies after that, trashing the reputations of both Wilsons and suggesting that it wasn’t so bad because Plame really wasn’t a covert operative — as she explains in her book, she was actually an ultra-covert operative in a program the CIA had set up to create cover identities for their agents by passing them off as businesspeople, either self-employed, working for dummy companies or working for real companies. (In a grim bit of irony, Plame said that some of the CIA operatives who were supposedly employed as upper-level executives for major corporations under this program received salaries far in excess of what the CIA was paying them — but they didn’t get to keep the money: they just got their normal CIA salary and the government pocketed the difference between what the corporation was shelling out for their services and what the CIA was paying them. Given the repetitive drone from the Right-wing media about how our economic recovery is supposedly threatened by overpaid government employees and government needs the economic discipline of the private sector, I found this almost unbearably ironic.) What made this assignment especially dangerous is that, unlike normal CIA operatives — who are attached to U.S. embassies as diplomats and therefore enjoy diplomatic immunity (if they’re caught the State Department simply takes them out of the country that caught them and repatriates them here) — the CIA won’t acknowledge the existence of their private-sector spies and therefore they’re liable for prosecution and punishment for espionage if they’re found out.
When Fair Game the movie came out in 2010, it was almost universally criticized for concentrating too much on the private lives of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and their two (twin) kids and not enough on the espionage and political aspects of the tale — which is the sort of critical comment that makes me wonder if the critics saw the same movie I did. (The tepid reviews didn’t help the cause of a movie that was probably going to be a hard sell to begin with, and Fair Game added to the list of Lions for Lambs, Green Zone and the other flop movies about the Bush administration, Iraq, Afghanistan and the “war on terror” — an indication of how the distributor, Summit Entertainment, is probably going to lose some of the mega-bucks they’ve made on the Twilight films.) What I saw when Charles and I watched Fair Game was a beautifully balanced thriller in which the Wilsons’ plight took on almost Kafka-esque characteristics.
Since it’s nominally based on Joseph Wilson’s book, The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity: A Diplomat’s Memoir, as well as Valerie Plame’s, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, it’s probably not fair to judge its accuracy on the basis of Plame’s book alone (which I’m in the middle of reading now), but as a piece of filmmaking it’s excellent edge-of-your-chair stuff and well worth watching. The script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, though it gets a bit contrived at times, expertly meshes the Wilsons’ domestic issues and the impact of the Bush administration’s (and the Right’s in general — particularly its always faithful media handmaidens, talk radio and Fox News) smear campaign on them and manages to make real life the stuff of an exciting thriller I found far more entertaining than any James Bond movie. Director Doug Liman has had experience with this sort of film before — he directed The Bourne Identity (2002), the remake with Matt Damon rather than the TV-movie original with Richard Chamberlain, and he produced (but did not direct) the two Bourne sequelae — but he too seems invigorated by the chance to tell a real-life spy story with political overtones.
He also cast it virtually perfectly; Naomi Watts is Valerie Plame to the life, visibly middle-aged and a bit heavy-set but still attractive (Summit prefaced the DVD with a brief interview with the real Plame, which only underscored just how good Watts’ impersonation is), and while I’m still bitter at Sean Penn for having scored the role of Harvey Milk when by all right, justice and morality it should have gone to a genuinely, and openly, Gay actor (I’ll remain bitter at that unless and until the Milk story gets remade with an “out” Gay actor in the lead and a script that deals accurately with Milk’s sexuality instead of trying to remold him into the model of a 21st century “we just want to get married” Gay guy), that doesn’t take away from his talent and his ability to get me to accept him as Joe Wilson just as for two hours in the Milk movie he actually got me to suspend disbelief and accept him as a Gay man.
The film is full of marvelous scenes that drive home the impossible dilemmas Wilson and Plame were put through — especially one, at a dinner party with their friends, all of whom are buying the Bush lies about Iraq hook, line and sinker while the Wilsons sit in frustration and can’t tell what they know because that would be revealing classified information — and at the same table one man puts forward the scenario that there are two guys in turbans sitting in the front seats of a plane, looking nervous, as it’s about to take off: what would you do? Wilson keeps his mouth shut, later getting furious at Plame in the car and wondering why he has to put up with such racist shit from their friends — and it occurred to me that my comeback would have been, “Look for the real terrorists, because it would be obvious those guys were decoys.” (And I didn’t need to know any classified information to figure that out — just as in the run-up to the Iraq war I didn’t need to go to Niger to figure out that Saddam Hussein couldn’t be running any weapons of mass destruction programs: I’d had years of contact with the movement against the U.N.-imposed, U.S.-enforced sanctions on Iraq and had heard too many direct stories of how hard it was for Iraq and its people to get anything from the outside world to believe that they could possibly have made WMD’s with nobody knowing.)
Fair Use is a chilling movie, though the world has moved so totally on from the preoccupations of the early 2000’s it also seems like a slice of ancient history, despite the obligatory those-who-do-not-learn-from-the-past-are-condemned-to-repeat-it lecture (literally — he’s speaking to a group of college students) from Joseph Wilson (or at least Sean Penn in character thereof) at the end. What’s really amazing is how the radical Right in this country has steadily grown in power and influence despite being wrong on just about everything, from economics (they’re still advocating tax cuts for the rich and cuts in government services for everyone else, only now they’re calling it “unleashing the private sector” because when they tried it in the 1920’s as “trickle-down economics” it produced the Great Depression, and when they tried it in the early 1980’s as “supply-side economics” it produced an immediate recession that didn’t turn into a depression only because of the Keynesian stimulus effects of Reagan’s defense buildup — so they keep giving it new names but it’s the same rotten message inside) to defense to civil rights to the environment (the editorial in the current New Yorker blasts President Obama for having retreated from any commitment to addressing the climate change issue but adds, “the President’s potential opponents next November are all worse on the issue” and quotes a National Journal piece as saying, “The GOP is stampeding towards an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe”).
At least part of that is the impressive and ultra-effective media propaganda machine they have built up, to the point where though the Republican party doesn’t have absolute control even of a republican (small-“r”) government, let alone the kind of overwhelming totalitarian control of the ruling Inner Party in George Orwell’s 1984, nonetheless on issue after issue the Republican party, the radical Right-wing that controls it utterly, and their media propagandists like talk radio and Fox News completely dictate what millions of Americans think on issue after issue. Time magazine, hardly a bastion of Left-wing radicalism, has an article in the current (June 20) issue on the continued woes of the U.S. economy in which author Rana Foroohar writes with a sense of real astonishment, “The Republicans have pulled off a major (some would say cynical) miracle by convincing the majority of Americans that the way to jump-start the economy is to slash taxes on the wealthy and on cash-holding corporations while cutting benefits for millions of Americans. It’s fun-house math that can’t work” — yet it’s what most Americans who turn on their radios in search of explanations for why they or their children or their friends can’t find jobs are going to hear, day in, day out, repeated and repeated and repeated as if it were gospel truth just chiseled on the tablets at Mount Sinai by the Lord Himself (whom Americans are far more likely to believe in than people of other nations — and though Charles will probably get offended when he reads this, I can’t help but wonder if the fact that Americans are more likely than citizens of any other advanced industrial republic to believe in the mad fantasies of religion makes them more likely to believe in other irrational things like Right-wing economics and the idea that humans have absolutely nothing to do with climate change).
In her book Plame unwittingly traces the history of these Right-wing tactics back to at least one of their sources when she compares what was done to her husband to what was done to presidential candidate John Kerry by the “Swift Boat Veterans for ‘Truth’” (Lies), which “used many of the same techniques and friendly media outlets that had been employed against Joe. Their tactics would have made Joe McCarthy proud: fearmongering, defamation of character, shameless disregard for the truth, and distortions of reality. It was classic Karl Rove: go after your enemy’s strong point. In Joe’s case it was that he told the truth; in Kerry’s case, it was his exemplary military service.” The reference to McCarthy only underscores how many decades the Right has spent honing these tactics and perfecting that approach — and one lesson they learned from McCarthy’s fall from grace was not to make their main attack dog an elected official: rather, install him (or, increasingly, her) as a media personality on a friendly outlet, so not only can they attack people with virtual impunity (thanks, ironically, to the liberal Warren Court’s decision in Times v. Sullivan in 1964 making it almost impossible for a public figure to sue for libel) but when they themselves are criticized, they can scream, “First Amendment! First Amendment!” all the way to the bank. As for Rove, as I pointed out at the time, Karl Rove wasn’t doing anything Lee Atwater hadn’t done before him; Atwater hadn’t done anything H. R. Haldeman hadn’t done before him; and Haldeman hadn’t done anything Murray Chotiner (Richard Nixon’s first political consultant and the man behind the smears of Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas that got him into the House and the Senate in the first place) hadn’t done before him.
What’s really frightening about Fair Game is not only the remorselessness and attack-dog tenacity of the Right’s human-destruction machine, and not only the unending supply of victims they seem to find (as witness Andrew Breitbart’s current jihad against the unfortunately-named Congressmember Anthony Weiner — whose name is universally being pronounced “weener” in the media even though the correct pronunciation, at least in the German language from which the name comes, is “whiner”), but the efficiency and devastating effectiveness of it and the fact that America’s radical Right is just one election away from total control of the country — and unless the economy heats up big-time and cooks up millions of good-paying jobs between now and November 2012, a Republican sweep is virtually a foregone conclusion and we’ll be nervously wishing for the (comparatively) good old days of George W. Bush the way Harold Meyerson confessed in The American Prospect that Bush made him miss the relative moderation of Ronald Reagan!