Not to be confused with the 1995 action film of the same name that featured Cindy Crawford’s first (and only, thankfully) starring film role (and topless scene), Doug Liman’s action flick FAIR GAME stars Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame Wilson, the undercover CIA operative who was outed by former George W. Bush White House official Scooter Libby.
In case you’re not familiar with the background, here goes nothing. On July 14, 2003, Washington Post journalist Robert Novak wrote a column revealing Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA operative. He was given this information by senior ranking White House official Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was eventually convicted of was of obstruction of justice, making false statements, and two counts of perjury. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison, but George W. Bush commuted his sentence. The incident has popped up in the news recently as Bush makes the press rounds for his new memoir, “Decision Points.” In the book, Bush recounts that a furious Dick Cheney told him, upon learning that Bush would only be commuting Libby’s sentence and not foregoing the $250,000 fine and two years of probation,” I can’t believe you’re going to leave a soldier on the battlefield.”
The film, based in part on Valerie Plame Wilson’s memoir “Fair Game,” is directed by Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”) from a screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Naomi Watts stars as Plame Wilson, while Sean Penn stars as her husband, Joe Wilson.
Watts immediately established herself as an elite actress following her stunning breakthrough role as a schizophrenic in David Lynch’s 2001 film, “Mulholland Drive.” Since then, she’s also appeared in a wide range of films, including the horror flick “The Ring,” earned a Best Actress Oscar nod for the intense drama “21 Grams” (also alongside Penn), and appeared in Peter Jackson’s Hollywood blockbuster, “King Kong.”
Like Plame Wilson, Watts strikes a balance between work and motherhood. Since 2005, Watts has been in a relationship with fellow actor Liev Schreiber, and the two had their first child – a son, Alexander “Sasha” Pete, in 2007, and their second son, Samuel “Sammy” Kai, in 2008.
MMM attended the press conference for the film Fair Game, where the talented Naomi Watts chatted about embodying Valerie Plame Wilson, her post-baby boot camp, and how she balances work and family.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Naomi, obviously you getting into the skin of someone that is alive, available, how much do you take advantage of that or not take advantage of that, and then how much do you concern yourself or worry in the process of them seeing it?
NAOMI WATTS: I think when you play someone who is a true, living person it definitely ups the ante and the pressure is tenfold. Everyone in America is familiar with this story, so I felt an extra amount of pressure that I wanted to tell it as truthfully as I could. And the fact that Valerie was not only alive but very involved closely, she was acting as one of our CIA consultants, she was on the set frequently as the BS barometer and saying, “This is how this scene would work,” or “We wouldn’t have those signs there,” or “You wouldn’t address someone like that.” She was very hands-on. It’s not every day as an actor that you get to meet a person like this. She’s someone who’s truly impressive to me so I was nervous. It felt like a big undertaking, and because of her injustice, because of that level of betrayal, it was deeply important for me to somehow serve her story in the best possible way. Our relationship was formed in a very quick and small amount of time. Basically, I had a baby on December 13, I read the script on December 28, and we were filming in February. We did like a little mini-shoot to catch the end of winter in February. So it was so little time, and so many facts. Obviously, we knew the story, but it was told through the media in a fragmented way. It was about piecemealing it together and then sort of letting go of the facts and concentrating on the character and really learning her story. Who was this woman and how did she deal with this betrayal? How did her marriage, her family function; how did her lifestyle change; who did she become? It would be so easy to assume that any of us would either avoid the fight altogether or come undone, and she did neither. And then with Sean, he actually went to Santa Fe and stayed with them for a couple of days. I couldn’t do that; I was nursing a child.
MMM: And I heard you were sent to boot camp?
WATTS: Yeah, Doug [Liman] sent me off. He was like, “No, you’re too soft and maternal. You’re going to boot camp.” I did some paramilitary training for three days.
MMM: You said one thing that Valerie certainly didn’t do is hide away or retreat or deny. I kind of think that’s exactly what she did. It’s almost like the instant the Novak story appears their whole world is transformed instantly into a battlefield. Her view seems to be, “I really don’t like these bullets and bombs. I’ve got my kids in the bunker, I’ve got my way of doing things, and I don’t want to do this.” And then she wakes up after she talks to Sam Shepard. That’s just the way it felt.
WATTS: Well I think the thing about Valerie is that if you meet her you learn very quickly that she’s not someone who wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s not an emotionally driven person. She was a brilliant covert agent and that is who she is to this day. She’s very controlled and reserved and quiet and warm, but you don’t get her all at once and she’s not easy to read. Yes, at times in playing this character it was difficult for me to wrap my head around that because I would handle it very differently than someone like her. But that’s who she is, that’s who she is through and through and she talks about it in the movie. Nothing ever broke her; she’s the one person in her training class that got through. She’s not a victim or a martyr. She absorbs things slowly and learns how to deal with them in her own way.
MMM: Naomi, could you talk about how you related personally to Valerie in terms of that you’re both mothers and you have to divide your time between a very intense career and also motherhood?
WATTS: Yeah. I had the utmost respect for her because of that and how she managed with twins and traveling all kinds of places all over the world and outrageous hours week in and week out. My job can be like that but then there are also incredible breaks. So I talked to her a lot about that, how she managed to be a professional and a mother and be really good at it. In fact, that was one of the things I learned about her just recently because I’d never really got to see her with her kids but obviously I heard her talk about them endlessly. But when she came into my hotel in Cannes and how she related to my children it was very clear in an instant that she is a natural mother, because my kids don’t really pay attention to people unless they’re holding some great, fantastic toy or something. So that balance was interesting to me, how she managed that, and definitely something that I can relate to.
MMM: Naomi, Liev told us he was also in research mode for “Salt” since he played a CIA supervisor. What was it like in your household during that period of time?
WATTS: It was very funny and very strange to have first of all, two of us shooting at the same time – that’s the first time it ever happened with us – and second of all, that we were both playing spies. But they couldn’t really have been more different; one was the classic spy story and one was based in truth and facts. So we were laughing about it; there were a lot of moments where we shared our research and watched documentaries on the CIA and compared notes, and I was talking about NOC. It was quite funny and unusual and good timing in a way, because he helped me and I helped him.
MMM: Naomi, how much did you actually know about Valerie’s story before you got called, and what were you thinking when you got to the end of the script?
WATTS: I was familiar with the story and was not following it as avidly as I wished I had at the time had I known this was going to be going on. But I was interested in it, and then it sort of just went away after the Libby trial. The next thing was getting that email from Jez Butterworth, who’s an old friend, and I said, “Listen, I just had a baby, I don’t think I’m going to read a script for a while,” and he went “Well, this is about Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe and their story. Just read the first 10 pages.” Of course he was very smart, as he always is, because you couldn’t just read 10 pages of the script. It all came back to me but there was obviously a lot more information that I discovered, and again, didn’t know quite the level of responsibility in her position. Then I read her book, which the script is based on, and went into more research, and then meeting her. So I learned a lot kind of on the job, basically. But I did know the story before I got closer.
MMM: Naomi, can you talk about meeting her for the first time and what surprised you about her? And also what was this boot camp, especially after just having a baby?
WATTS: Well meeting her it took a while, because as I said, I’d just had the baby. We worked out that Santa Fe and New York door-to-door travel was 12 hours and it wasn’t going to be an easy thing. I would have liked to be able to do what Sean did and just show up and hang out for a couple of days. Be inside their home and see how things functioned, but it just didn’t happen. But what was funny, and I realized I’m really talking to a spy when she said, “Well okay. How about we meet halfway? Let’s meet at Chicago airport.” I’m who meets at an airport? Oh, a spy does. But even that became hard to do, and eventually she came to New York and we had dinner. And again, like I said before, you don’t get her all at once, so it takes time, and I’m kind of like that too. I like to read a person before I give myself away or something; I don’t know. She’s obviously someone who that’s her training. So we just were careful and easy with each other and we slowly went into it, and then finally it was like crunch time and I just presented her with a list of very confronting and personal questions. All the facts were available but really what I wanted to get into was her mindset and her psyche and how she dealt with this. And yeah, how she was almost kind of just unbelievably consistent and strong. I wanted to learn about who that person was and how she managed to function in every part of her life. Oh yeah the training. That was intense
MMM: Did Valerie speak about how she felt about having to leave her agents out there and not being able to protect them and their families?
WATTS: Well, yeah. This is what the film is about. I think it’s very strange how her life evolved. She never expected to be in the position of exposing her life story and having it turn up into a film. She loved her job, she loved what she did, and would have that back in a second if she could. Obviously deeply involved with a number of different families, assets, whatever, that she was emotionally attached to. So it was really hard for her. This is why it felt like such a huge betrayal, and going into her job as a covert agent she expected, or there’s risk of being exposed by another government, but to have it done to you by your own is such an injustice.
MMM: As you know, Valerie lived a double life. As an actress you sort of have a double life as well – your home life and your public persona. What do your kids think of what Mom and Dad do for a living? Do they understand?
WATTS: Well her kids were very young at the time.
MMM: Oh no, your kids.
WATTS: Oh. They don’t really understand it yet. There have been times when they see a photo or a flash of us on tv or something and they’ll go “Oh! Mommy!” or “Daddy!” And then we try to explain Daddy’s got to go to work or Mommy’s got to go to work now. “But I want to come!” They can come to the set and they see you. They think our work is in a trailer; that’s our office. And then actually I’m shooting a film right now called “The Impossible,” which is another true story that we all know of based on the tsunami. This one was quite difficult then coming to work for the first time because they saw Mommy in quite a bad condition. So I had to explain that these owies were just pretend, and it took a little while. We prepped it days in advance and then showed them how you can put a little bit of blood on and then you can rub it off, and now they like it too.
FAIR GAME is now playing in select theaters nationwide.
Fair Game, directed by Doug Liman, is the cinematic interpretation of the Valerie Plame story, starring Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, Joe Wilson. The film’s flaws are many, but they share the same root cause: the film’s creators forgot to dramatize the narrative.
Scooter Libby outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent is an amazing story in itself. In the time leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration was paranoid over what might have happened in the First Gulf War had things gone differently—Saddam had allegedly been only six months away from building a nuclear weapon.
The film is partially a study of paranoia—the presence of Scooter Libby at the CIA signals that the White House doesn’t trust other departments to go about their business, and later in the film, when a former Iraqi military scientist is asked whether Saddam has or is developing WMDs, he responds in the negative, adding: “They know this. They must know,” referring to the American government. The film also features a fair amount of carefully chosen television news, including speeches by President Bush and highly pixelated clips of Al-Jazeera.
While the allusions to media saturation and paranoia are relevant, neither can make up for the lack of a dramatic plot or interesting characters. The film is set up as a thriller: from the get-go we go through successions of short cuts. Watts’ interpretation of Plame receives minimal screen time aside from her too-perfect responses to questioning while undercover and unmoving exchanges with her husband and her father.
Joe Wilson writes an op-ed in the New York Times calling out the Bush Administration for trumping up charges against Niger in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. Penn plays an outspoken, albeit patriotic man who is often telling the truth. The problem is he’s not interesting and becomes difficult to listen to over the course of the film.
Films should be evaluated on their own terms. As an adaptation of the news, Fair Game succeeds as a slow recollection of some of the hysteria that preceded the Invasion of Iraq. This will be a great film to show our children in history classes, but frankly, I’d prefer if they read about it instead. In its final act, the film morphs into a kind of patriotic-let’s-together-for-ourselves piece of American pride complete with Sean Penn lecturing passionately to a group of college students.
After Plame is outed by Libby, the CIA shuts down Plame’s operation leaving an Iraqi military scientist to die, along with practically everyone else in the young doctor’s family. When the doctor’s sister, played by Liraz Charhi, confronts Plame about the whereabouts of her family, she reacts unconvincingly with minimal emotion to the news that nearly everyone in her extended family has been butchered, completing the half-baked subplot.
Earlier in the film, Charhi’s character asks Plame how she is able to lie. Plame responds that one must always know why one is lying and to never forget the truth. Despite a valiant effort to stick to the facts, there is little truth to be taken from Fair Game.