The Spy Left Out in the Cold

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts get caught in a real-life political blizzard

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If truth is the first casualty of war, the second is the truth-tellers. Look at Julian Assange, the internationally hounded founder of the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, and Joe Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, the subjects of Doug Liman's sharply observed Fair Game.

The movie is based on the memoirs of Wilson — a former U.S. ambassador who wrote a New York Times editorial in 2003 disputing the manipulated intelligence cited by the Bush administration as pretext for invading Iraq — and Plame, a CIA officer whose career ended when her secret identity was revealed by conservative columnist Robert Novak, evidently in retaliation for her husband's outspokenness (Karl Rove reportedly said Plame was "fair game").

Wilson and Plame — attractive, blond Valerie and Joe, with his salt-and-pepper hair and wire glasses — are natural subjects for a spy thriller (sorta like an older Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who starred in another secret-agent movie directed by Liman, Mr. and Mrs. Smith). But Fair Game wouldn't work nearly as well without its bigger themes — lies, propaganda, war, abuse of power, and the hijacking of democracy.

The casting is perfect. Naomi Watts not only looks like Plame, she's also credible and affecting as the gutsy covert operative who wears multiple identities in her often dangerous work (which is romanticized for the movie, no doubt, but compelling nonetheless). One of those identities is that of a businesswoman, the disguise she wears in her daily life as a wife and mother in a prosperous Washington, D.C. suburb. And Sean Penn doesn't so much impersonate Wilson as channel him in a nuanced performance that reminds us what a great actor he is. The movie's Wilson is principled, arrogant, and a bit of a blowhard, and his self-righteous but understandable bluster places his wife in jeopardy.

As part of her non-proliferation work, Plame is asked to recommend her husband, a former ambassador with expertise in African nations, for a trip to Niger to research whether Saddam Hussein bought weapons-grade uranium. Wilson's report concludes that no such purchase was made, and he's incensed when President Bush claims in a State of the Union address that Hussein sought "significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Wilson fires off his New York Times article, which reverberates in the White House, where Scooter Libby and Rove, probably acting on behalf of Vice President Dick Cheney, seek to discredit him by leaking his wife's identity to Novak.

Following her exposure, Plame is subjected to death threats, and Wilson is denounced by news outlets as a flake, hack, liar, and traitor. Jez and John Henry Butterworth's excellent screenplay doesn't overlook the dire human consequences of Plame's blown cover: A group of Iraqi scientists she promised to smuggle out of Iraq are left stranded and in jeopardy. The Wilsons' marriage falters, and Plame takes refuge with her mother and father, a retired Air Force colonel played by Sam Shepard.

The affair known as Plamegate soon erupts, and Libby — "the fall guy," according to Wilson — is convicted of obstruction of justice and other charges, and sentenced to prison before his sentence is commuted by Bush.

Wilson and Plame, still denounced by many insiders to this day, left Washington for a new life in Santa Fe. They survived the ordeal, spoke out, and wrote books. But the same can't be said of other victims of the deceitful invasion, including the thousands of dead Iraqis who were victims of gruesome torture, brutal home raids, and indiscriminate bombings. The public's memory is short, but as continual revelations prove, history won't forget.

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