Sean Penn may look intense but all he hears is "blah, blah, blah."
(2010) True Life Drama (Summit) Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Noah Emmerich, Liraz Charchi, Nicholas Sadler, Tom McCarthy, Ty Burrell, Jessica Hecht, Norbert Leo Butz, Rebecca Rigg, David Andrews, Bruce McGill, Sam Shepard, Polly Holliday. Directed by Doug Liman
When the story broke, it was almost something out of a John Le Carre novel. An American spy, outed in a newspaper and get this – orchestrated by her own government who were trying to discredit her husband who had written a report that basically accused that government of going to war over reasons that were false, that the administration knew were false.
Sounds like a novel, but this is what really happened to Valerie Plame (Watts). She was an operative for the CIA with expertise in the Middle East which at the time is where most of our intelligence efforts had shifted to with the fall of the Communist bloc. However to her neighbors, she worked a boring job in DC and was married to Joe Wilson (Penn), the former U.S. Ambassador to Niger.
He is contracted to do a fact-finding mission there to determine if Saddam Hussein is purchasing weapons-grade Uranium from Niger. Wilson checks with his contacts and not only is it not likely that they could be getting the uranium, it’s not physically possible. Satisfied, he returns home and presents his findings to the CIA who are busy amassing intelligence that the White House has ordered in order to justify their impending invasion of Iraq.
His wife Valerie is as well, trying to get hold of Iraqi nuclear scientists to debrief. They’re all telling her the same thing – there is no WMD program, it was dismantled after the first Gulf War. She is putting some of her contacts in danger so she is arranging for them to leave the country.
Then in the State of the Union address, President Bush refers to Uranium that Iraq is buying from Niger for their weapons program. Wilson is at first puzzled and then incensed; and he publishes an op-ed piece in the New York Times disputing the President’s facts.
Shortly thereafter in another newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Robert Novak publishes a piece naming his wife as a covert CIA operative, quoting highly-placed sources in the White House (who allegedly turned out to be Richard Armitage, although Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are all looked at as possible sources as well in the film).
From then on, Plame’s position at the CIA was untenable. She was forced to resign and her contacts were compromised, with a number of them paying for her outing with their lives. Wilson was livid; he wanted to fight the situation, believing that this was a vindictive government functionary getting back at him through his wife (a theory which many hold to be true).
Plame was a little bit more low-key. However the strain was telling, not only in her relationships with her neighbors, friends and family (there’s a great scene with her parents, played by Shepard and Holliday) and her husband. The media scrutiny (which Wilson embraced to a certain extent) threatened to tear their marriage apart.
Liman who directed Mr. and Mrs. Smith about fictional secret agents gets to play with a real one here. This isn’t a spy film though; it’s more of a political thriller and even though we know how it ends up (not a spoiler but we wind up going to war anyway). Liman gives the movie the pacing of a suspense thriller despite it being a biographical drama and that’s definitely the right way to go.
Of course, he benefits from having Penn, one of the best actors in the business and he delivers a typically outstanding performance. Joe is a bit of a hothead and a blowhard with a deep-seated sense of right and wrong; when he sees something that offends that sense he goes after it. He speaks his mind, sometimes at the expense of friendships. He does have some failings – he likes the spotlight a little too much for Valerie’s liking – but his intelligence and passion are undeniable.
Watts has less to work with than Penn does but she proves able with a part that has some subtlety to it missing from the more in-your-face Joe. She is more concerned with holding her family together but that’s hard to do when you’re getting threatening phone calls and neighbors asking about your espionage activities. Plame also has to deal with the country she worked so hard to protect literally betraying her and throwing her to the wolves.
The movie is largely based on the two memoirs written separately by Joe and Valerie and Liman rather than couching the film behind aliases here names names which is to be admired. I’m sure there are people in the previous administration who think this movie is beyond the pale but hey, you reap what you sow after all.
The overall tone is pretty dry to be honest but there is a certain courage of its own convictions. Yes, the movie certainly takes a specific viewpoint and if you disagree with it you probably won’t think much of the film, Sean Penn or no Sean Penn. Also, please understand what you see here isn’t gospel; while the Wilsons vetted the movie and what they understood was happening at the time is what we see. What went on behind the scenes is pure conjecture and while it’s based on educated guesses, chances are we’ll never really know how things went down.
Still, the movie at its best shows the effect of this kind of scandal on a family and that’s when I really enjoyed it. The political discussion while interesting is ultimately just an empty gesture that really won’t contribute much to your understanding of the actual events; perhaps we all see what we want to in these situations.
WHY RENT THIS: A look at the inside of a scandal most of us barely knew through the news. Penn and Watts give typically strong performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the facts from the movie have been disputed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but not much else to impede family viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the “Freedom of Expression” award from the National Board of Review.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In a somewhat surprising and welcome move, the audio commentary is provided by Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame – the real ones.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $24.2M on a $22M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: The General’s Daughter