Tuesday, September 22, 2020

HOW AMERICA WENT TO WAR

It’s awfully easy to characterize “Fair Game” only as a story of conflict in marriage and the tension between duty/integrity and the need to preserve that marriage. In this case, it is the relationship of Valerie Plame Wilson (Naomi Watts) a covert CIA operative and retired Ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn). By now the story has been oft told: Plame, the agent dealt with nuclear proliferation; Wilson was beginning a new consulting career while tending to twins. They were comfortable living in Washington power circles and enjoying the comforts of life. They also had to transcend the burdens of Plame’s secret travels and double life. The movie version of “Fair Game” is based on two books about the matter: one by Plame; one by Wilson. Actually the movie goes far beyond the interpersonal story and into questions of power and politics.

Into the Wilson marriage came the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and claims that the Iraqis possessed aluminum tubes, meant to house nuclear weapons while Iraq, under Sadaam, was negotiating to buy large quantities of “yellow cake uranium” from Niger in order to construct the weapons. Plame was instantly thrown into the mix. She was asked whether Wilson, as a former ambassador, was familiar with Niger, and stated that he was familiar with places and people in Africa, and could be helpful. He was subsequently asked, and acted without compensation, to find out more about the uranium issue. He went to Niger, gathered data, and prepared a negative report that was rejected by the Bush Administration, particularly Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff. At that point Plame viewed her duty to remain silent as a professional operative, while Libby, depicted by David Andrews as a slick and detestable political tool overrides the lack of evidence of WMD’s in Iraq. In his State of the Union message President George W. Bush uttered the famous 16 words about Iraq having the resources to produce nuclear weapons.

Joe Wilson then chose to go on the offense, and wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times rebutting the Administration’s position on the Iraq-Niger alleged deal. Penn depicts Wilson as a hair-trigger character, fiercely defending his wife (whether she wants to be defended or not) and sufficiently ego driven to make the truth known under any circumstances.

As part of the administration’s political agenda Plame was then outed as a CIA agent in a planted column by Bob Novak, a well-known Washington political writer. Under U.S. law, publicly revealing the identity of a CIA agent is a criminal offense. The marriage came close to breaking wide open because of the conflict in positions of Plame and Wilson.

Without detailing what subsequently happened to Plame and Wilson, it is sufficient to note that Libby was convicted on four criminal counts, fined and sentenced to a prison term. However, President Bush commuted his sentence. Libby was also disbarred from law practice, at least in the District of Columbia.

Far beyond the depiction of the strains on a relationship is the huge question of the use, and apparent misuse, of power in the government’s executive branch in order to fulfill a political objective. In this case the administration was determined to bring down the dictator Sadaam – apparently even resorting to distorting the truth about the presence of WMD’s in Iraq. There is still a debate in a number of quarters whether it was worth the cost in lives and treasure to bring about the demise of an admittedly horrendous regime and its brutal despot.

The movie is engrossing and particularly well acted by Naomi Watts who has a remarkable resemblance to the real Valerie Plame. Sean Penn is really in a second banana role, and handles it capably, while David Andrews is terrific as a truly unscrupulous Libby.

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