This film seems to have come and almost gone rather quickly and, unfortunately, not enough people who need to see it will get a chance or be motivated to do so. It is a dramatization of the story of Joseph Wilson IV and Valerie Plame, told from the point of view of their books about the incidents involved, and it contains important messages that every American citizen needs to hear – not least because of the way the media bungled large parts of the story at the time it broke. Director Doug Liman has produced a tight, fast-paced drama that kept me engaged through every minute, and Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are superb in the leading roles.
According to the depiction in this film, Plame was an active undercover operative for the CIA, both analyzing intelligence in the DC metro area office and undertaking overseas missions, developing sources of information needed for U.S. intelligence operations, etc. She was married to Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat who was active as a business consultant. After the 9/11 attacks, there was intense pressure on the CIA to follow down every lead about the possibility that Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq was developing nuclear capabilities. When a report surfaced that aluminum tubes were sold to Iraq, every attempt was made to depict this as a purchase intended to further the nuclear program, although the CIA operatives told White House representatives that this was unlikely. Plame was part of this intelligence mission.
Then a report surfaced through British intelligence that an African country with uranium mines, Niger, had sold a large quantity of uranium to Iraq. The Vice President's Office turned to the CIA for verification, and the CIA needed to get somebody into Niger who would be capable of tracking down the story. Plame mentioned that her husband, who had been ambassador to a neighboring African state, had visited Niger, and was acquainted with key government officials there, and might be able to help. At the prompting of her supervisors, she summarized his credentials in a memorandum, which was forwarded through channels, and Ambassador Wilson was recruited for the mission. He was not paid; his expenses were picked up through the agency budget. Niger, as depicted in the film, is a third world country, not a vacation spot, with crude hotels and transportation. Wilson visited, tried to track down the story, and was convinced from everything he saw and heard there, that such a large-scale uranium sale could not have taken place without leaving any trace, not least because the transit of such a huge quantity of uranium from the mines out of the country could not possibly have escaped notice, and the amount involved would have been about 40% of the country's annual production, but there was no record anywhere of such a transaction. He reported this back to the CIA debriefers and was thanked, and he thought that was the end of it, until he saw the broadcast of President Bush's state of the union address, in which the President referred to a report of a large uranium sale from an African nation to Iraq as part of his bill of particulars about why the nation might have to go to war with Iraq.
After stewing about this and watching the outbreak of war when he had come to believe that the White House was not being straight with the American people, Wilson wrote an op-ed piece published in the New York Times recounting his expedition to Niger and his conclusion that such a uranium sale had not taken place. Reacting to this from the White House, some high administration officials leaked information to syndicated columnist Robert Novak that included statements intended to undermine Wilson's credibility and to suggest that he had been sent on this expedition at the government's expense by his wife, a CIA operative. It was made to sound like some sort of a government vacation junket. The Novak column blew Valerie Plame's cover as a secret operative, in violation of a federal statute making it a felony to disclose the identity of U.S. covert operatives. Her cover blown, Plame lost her job with the CIA and became a target of death-threats and bad-mouthing from the right-wing media, and Wilson saw his consulting business take a nose-dive as right-wing blowhards in the press denounced him as unpatriotic and undermining the war effort.
Then, as a result of the Justice Department investigation into the leak ordered by the president, Scooter Libby, chief of staff for the Vice President, "took the fall" for the administration and was convicted of leaking the information and sentenced to prison, but President Bush commuted his sentence. However, Bush refused to pardon him, despited repeated importuning by Vice President Cheney during the waning days of the administration.
Bush's commutation is, to me, a virtual admission that Libby was taking the fall for others – most likely Karl Rove and V.P. Dick Cheney – since it seems to me unlikely that Libby would have disclosed this information without at least an intimation from higher-ups that he should do so. In other words, Bush thought it unfair that Libby should actually spend years in prison for being a good soldier and following orders, but he wouldn't pardon him because Libby was guilty of doing something in violation of federal law. Clearly some culpable parties were never held legally responsible for an important betrayal of the United States – revealing the identity of a CIA covert operative, which is clearly contrary to the national security interest of the U.S. I would have thought an impeachable offense…. ! And, of course, as we know in retrospect, the Office of the Vice President worked very hard to fan the flames of "weapons of mass destruction" hysteria, both in the West Wing and in the media, to justify a war of choice, when it appears that the intelligence agencies were dubious about these conclusions.
At any rate – this is a summary of the story as told in the film, based on the Plame and Wilson accounts, so it is one side of the story. I'm sure that Libby, Rove, Cheney, and others would have their own perspectives. But the film — which uses the real names of Plame, Wilson, Rove and Libby — certainly has a documentary feel to it, although of course it is a dramatization, and it clearly leaves the viewer with the impression that justice was not ultimately served in this case.
Again, I found it gripping throughout. Unfortunately, it was short-shrifted by the media when it was released and it is barely playing at this point – I saw it listed at only one or two art houses in Manhattan. The quasi-documentary nature of it undoubtedly frightens away people who are looking for entertainment. Well, I can say that it is not boring, not for a moment, it really holds your attention. There are a few monologues that are a bit on the "speechy" side, especially Wilson's final peroration to a classroom of adoring fans, but most of the dialogue seems realistic and the action is fast-paced. A brief star-turn by Sam Shepard as Plame's father is alone worth the price of admission. Penn and Watts are eminently watchable, although it is a bit hard to fathom the nature of the marital relationship here, which perhaps led to the less than stellar reviews. But the scenes of Watts doing her covert operations stuff are terrific!
See it if you can!