Real-Life Spy Valerie Plame Is 'Fair Game' For New Movie

The world first heard the name Valerie Plame in 2003. Her identity as a CIA officer was leaked by Bush administration officials when she was mentioned by name in an article by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. Her exposure as an undercover operative was seen as an attempt to discredit Plame's husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson. Now a new movie about the controversy and the tensions placed on the Wilson's marriage is about to open nationwide. Host Liane Hansen speaks to director Doug Liman about the film, Fair Game, starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The world first heard the name Valerie Plame in 2003. Her identity as a CIA officer was leaked by Bush Administration officials and she was mentioned by name in an article by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. Her exposure as an undercover operative was seen as an attempt to discredit Plame's husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson. He had publicly criticized White House officials for manipulating intelligence to justify the launch of the Iraq War.

A new movie about the controversy and the tensions placed on the Wilson's marriage is about to open nationwide. The film, "Fair Game," stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.

(Soundbite of movie, "Fair Game")

Ms. NAOMI WATTS (Actress): (as Valerie Plame) Wilson never worked for the CIA but his wife...

Mr. SEAN PENN (Actor): (as Joe Wilson) Is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. He just went ahead and did it.

Ms. WATTS: Did this run overseas?

Mr. PENN: It's in the newspaper, Valerie. It's on the...

Ms. WATTS: No, no, that's Collins. Is he syndicated overseas?

Mr. PENN: Everywhere.

HANSEN: "Fair Game" is directed by Doug Liman. He's in our New York Bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DOUG LIMAN (Director, "Fair Game"): Thanks so much, Liane.

HANSEN: You're not a stranger to making movies involving spies - "The Bourne Identity" with Matt Damon, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." And you were the executive producer of several episodes of the cable TV drama "Covert Affairs." Why did you want to make "Fair Game," other than the spy angle?

Mr. LIMAN: I am obsessed with spies. And, you know, my actual involvement in this project didn't begin with the scandal back in 2003. You know, like a lot of Americans, I heard about what happened to Valerie Plame. I was outraged, but I was in the middle of putting together "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," and you could imagine the kinds of problems I had dealing with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and I...

HANSEN: Really?

Mr. LIMAN: ...I sort of, I had my own life to worry about and I promptly forgot about Valerie Plame. You know, and it was several years later, a brilliant British playwright who I knew called me up and said he and his brother had written a screenplay about Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson and would I take a look at it. And read the script and basically fell in love with the characters of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson.

So, this film, for me, did not start from a political place. I thought, wow, these are amazing characters in this incredible story and it's just a bonus that it happens to be true.

HANSEN: The movie opens with scenes of Valerie Plame working overseas. She's working for the CIA; she's using aliases to prevent the sale of nuclear weapons components in various countries. There's a scene I want to play.

(Soundbite of movie, "Fair Game")

Ms. WATTS: If you help us, we help you. If you don't, your brother dies and tomorrow you're sitting next to your uncle in a cell in Thailand and it won't be me asking the questions.

Unidentified Man: No, no, you can't.

Ms. WATTS: We can help him if he's listened to me, because I promise you one thing: right now, you have no idea what we can and cannot do.

HANSEN: Naomi Watts is Valerie Plame in the new film, "Fair Game." When she was outed as a CIA operative, a lot was said that she was kind of this third tier, you know, not very important, she didn't play too important a role in the CIA. Your movie opens with that scene where she's in full operative mode. Was it important for you to establish her as a legitimate undercover operative, one who was really involved in a lot of what was going on at the time?

Mr. LIMAN: Yeah. I mean, first of all, it happens to be true. When someone's saying something, it's actually very important to see who's saying it and whether they actually know the truth or whether they might have, you know, political reasons for saying it. But, you know, her role as a top agency operative is not disputed.

And for the story, what I found so compelling is the scene you just played, where she's in Kuala Lumpur and she's infiltrating a supply chain for nuclear components that are destined for a place, either North Korea or Iran, is that the contrast - that we see her in the field but then we see her at home with her friends and with her husband. And you realize that she can't tell anybody what it is she does for a living.

And the true impact that that has on a person - you know, I've created a lot of spies, you know, in my short career with Jason Bourne and with Annie Walker and "Covert Affairs" and it had never quite occurred to me the human toll side. Like, you know, obviously, with Jason Bourne, it's all the flamboyant fun of being a spy but, you know, there's a real isolating aspect to being a spy where basically if you're Valerie Plame, you have people who you call your best friend but they don't actually know you.

And so is that person still your best friend? And how do you maintain a marriage when you can't tell your husband where you're going or how long you'll be gone and he just needs to know whether or not you need child care for the kids?

HANSEN: Right.

Mr. LIMAN: You know, I'm very comfortable blowing things up. I'm very comfortable doing sort of the big large external scenes and, you know, God knows this film took me, you know, to six countries, including Baghdad. We shot massive action sequences in faraway places.

For some reason, I'm much more comfortable doing that than the very intimate scenes between Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame as their marriage is starting to come undone as a result of the pressure brought on them by the White House.

HANSEN: I'm speaking with Doug Liman. He's the director of the new movie "Fair Game."

The movie uses a lot of real-life elements because it is based on facts. There's television footage from "Meet the Press," for example, and President Bush delivers the State of the Union address and then it leads to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Given that this is fact-based but you're also telling the story of the Wilsons and their marriage, at some times did you find yourself walking a fine line between docudrama and feature film?

Mr. LIMAN: I found during the course of making "Bourne Identity," the more real I made it and the more I borrowed from history and, you know, for "Bourne Identity," it's pretty widely known that my father was running the investigation to the Iran-Contra affair and I borrowed liberally from my father's investigation.

HANSEN: And I'll mention your father was attorney Arthur Liman.

Mr. LIMAN: Yes. And I borrowed liberally from his investigation and pulled, in fact, more characters from my father's investigation than I pulled from Robert Ludlum's novel to create the "Bourne" series. So, I kind of know firsthand that reality can actually give you better drama than a screenwriter can make up. So, "Fair Game" is consistent with that.

That if you are going to make up characters for a film, you probably couldn't come up with better, more interesting characters than Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson and Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby on the other side.

HANSEN: Your late father, you mentioned, Arthur Liman, introduced you to this world of intelligence and information gathering, but he didn't want you to become a filmmaker. Why not?

Mr. LIMAN: Yeah, my father had a more conventional lifestyle. I mean, he worked, you know, the New York version of a nine to five job, which is eight to eight. But he was just nervous that I wasn't going to grow up. And luckily, he lived long enough to see me make my first film, "Swingers," which became the most profitable sale ever of an independent film at the time. And so he suddenly came to understand that, well, I wasn't even going to need a mortgage, you know, if I keep making films like that.

But I really respect him for challenging me like that because, you know, he was one of the most persuasive human beings on the planet and yet, he wasn't able to convince me to give up my dream. And that gave me the thick skin that's enabled me to weather bad reviews. You know, being a film director isn't all good news. You know, you put yourself out there, you make yourself vulnerable and thanks to my father I've developed a thick skin early.

HANSEN: That's Doug Liman, the director of "Fair Game." The movie opens nationwide Friday. He joined us from our New York bureau.

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