November 25, 2010
Last weekend, while the hoards lined up around the block for the latest Harry Potter, I took a chance on a movie that received considerably less attention, “Fair Game.”
Starring an over-the-top Sean Penn and a more restrained Naomi Watts, the film tells the story of Valerie Plame, a veteran CIA covert operative who was outed by Robert Novak in The New York Times not long after her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, wrote an op ed piece in which he denied the Bush administration’s assertion that the African nation of Niger sold yellow cake uranium to Iraq for the manufacture of those phantom WMDs that provided the justification for invading Iraq.
Once Novak blew Plame’s cover, many of her contacts lost their lives, at least according to "Fair Game.” Key members of the administration systematically engaged in assassinating her character. In the process, they compromised our national security. Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, eventually took the fall for the whole sorry mess.
The film details what lead to this orchestrated attack.
But I found those events less compelling than the icy resolve of Plame herself. She’s the devoted mother of twins and a loving wife to her impulsive husband. They are a study in opposites. He shoots from the hip, while she weighs every word before she says it.
Yet their affection for one another is clear. He worries because he often doesn’t know where she is and, in one scene, studies a bruise on her arm while she sleeps fitfully beside him. He doesn’t have a clue as to where she got it. Clearly, his wife is a mystery to him.
Sometimes, she acts like a man, cornering a potential informant in Indonesia and disarming him with a barrage of facts. At other times, she cajoles people into cooperating by her warm concern for the welfare of their families. Then she seems prototypically feminine, almost nurturing, qualities the movies don’t usually associate with CIA employees.
Still, I kept wondering what made Valerie Plame tick. She’s not the kind of woman who sits down with a group of her friends to talk about her feelings.
The answer comes in one pivotal scene toward the end. Everyone knows who she is, and her career is in shambles. She leaves her husband because he seems to enjoy the limelight her notoriety brings and has grown even more outspoken in his views, actions that are contrary to every cell in her body.
She takes the children to visit her parents. Sam Shepard, plays her father, a retired military man who’s just as steely as his daughter. As the two of them talk quietly in his backyard, he apologizes for never making a home for the family and for forcing Valerie to move thirty times as a child—thirty chances to start all over again, he says ironically. Then he tells her how tough she was, so tough that he and her mother never really understood her at all. She glances at him, close-lipped, not about to reveal why she is who she is.
But she’s most definitely her father’s daughter, a truth captured by the way they both sit silently, backs ramrod straight, eyes focused on some distant place the rest of us can’t see. In that moment, they are brave and strong—and quintessentially human.