SUCKER PUNCH SQUAD: Sean Penn's 'Fair Game' Rewrites Valerie Plame Affair to Trash Rove & Bush
[Editor's Note: Script reviews of upcoming projects have been around for as long as there's been an Internet. Therefore it's no secret that a film can evolve into something quite different from its screenplay. Please keep in mind that this article represents a look at a particular script and not the final product.]
The truth is, it was State Department official Richard Armitage – a Bush critic, not an evil neocon – who leaked Plame’s name. Yet Armitage’s name never appears in the script. And how could it? That would defuse the filmmakers’ intent to demonize Rove and Bush and to condemn the war as shameful, unjust American aggression.
Coming soon to a theater near you: a movie starring Sean Penn as a great American patriot taking a courageous stand against a tyrannical power. No, it’s not a biopic about Penn’s South American idol, Hugo Chavez, facing down the imperialistic Goliath of the United States. It’s a dramatization of “Plamegate,” the affair of the CIA operative whose identity was outed in the run-up to the Iraq War, ostensibly by a vindictive Bush administration. Fair Game, based on Valerie Plame Wilson’s autobiographical book of the same name, stars Naomi Watts as the aggrieved Plame and Penn as her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, in a role apparently already gaining Oscar buzz.
(By the way, what Oscar voters in recent years refer to as “buzz” is actually the sound of audiences all across this country snoring – such is the disconnect between Oscar winners and what Americans usually like to see).
But the thought of bringing Fair Game to a theater near you or anyone else must have the producers quaking in their Kenneth Coles. After all, they’re facing the almost certain prospect of their political thriller going down in flames a là the recent cinematic Hindenburg known as The Green Zone, which many are claiming is the final nail in the coffin of Iraq-war-themed movies. The Plame project is a joint production of Abu Dhabi’s Imagenation Entertainment and Participant Media, which describes itself as focusing on “socially relevant, commercially viable” projects.
I think they need to adjust their focus. Fair Game not only is socially irrelevant to everyone except obsessive Bush-haters, but isn’t commercially viable either, since American moviegoers have rejected Hollywood’s anti-war propaganda over and over again. Actually, “anti-war” is a misnomer, since if the Hollywood Left were truly anti-war, they would denounce the actual aggressors like bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas et al. But they're usually too busy heaping moral condemnation on the U.S. and its allies to protest against real evil in the world.
And the concept of evil is too simplistic anyway for the Hollywood Left, which believes the world is more nuanced than conservatives are capable of comprehending, much less admitting. “There are no bad guys or good guys,” say writer/director Stephan Gaghan and George Clooney about their 2005 movie Syriana, in which Americans are clearly the bad guys and radicalized Muslims are the moral center. That's the hypocrisy of Hollywood's morally inverted view of the world, in which leftists are pillars of truth and integrity, bad guys are simply misunderstood, and conservatives are utterly Satanic. “Bush lied, people died” – you know, nuance.
This isn’t the place for a thorough re-examination of Plamegate or of the justification for going to war with Iraq, which have been written about exhaustively elsewhere: check out Kenneth Timmerman’s book Shadow Warriors, for example, in which he discusses the scandal and eviscerates the Wilsons in the process, or Party of Defeat, in which David Horowitz and Ben Johnson concisely lay out the reasons for going after Saddam. But in case you didn’t keep up with the mainstream media’s four-year, off-and-on front-page obsession with the Plame scandal, here’s a quick recap:
In 2003, the White House sent former ambassador Joe Wilson to follow up on a lead that Iraqi maniac Saddam was trying to purchase fissionable materials from Niger. Wilson reported back that the rumor wasn’t credible; but when the Bush administration proceeded to put forth the suspicion as part of the case for going to war, Wilson wrote a controversial editorial entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” in the wake of which journalist Robert Novak revealed that Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame was a CIA operative. The Wilsons believed that Novak’s White House source was Karl “The Architect” Rove and that her identity was leaked as revenge for Wilson exposing the administration’s “duplicity.” The anti-war Left and the left-leaning media latched onto this affair and milked it throughout the early years of the war, undermining morale and the war effort, although a Senate investigation ultimately discredited the Wilsons’ accusations.
Not to be dissuaded by the facts, Hollywood is dipping into the well again in Fair Game. My own undercover source deep in the belly of the Hollywood beast (okay, it’s Big Hollywood editor John Nolte and his Whistleblower) has slipped me a copy of the script, written by Jez and John Butterworth. I don’t know whether this is a first draft or the final shooting script or some version in-between, but based on what I've read, the movie is more than just a desperate attempt to turn this already overblown scandal into a nail-biting political thriller; Fair Game is a full-out assault on Bush’s “war of choice” and on what Roger Ebert, whose career has degenerated into making petty insults toward decent Americans, calls “neocon evildoing.” (There’s that nuance again).
Must I issue a spoiler alert for this one? Would it really come as a surprise to hear that the script paints the entire Bush administration as power-mad schemers, and the Wilsons as courageous patriots putting themselves on the line to save the lives of American soldiers and defend our Constitutional rights? That it asserts that Bush’s abuses, not Saddam Hussein’s central role in international terrorism, constituted the real threat to this country? That a whole slew of critical CIA operations was abandoned, thanks to the vengeful outing of Valerie Plame, leaving many agents exposed in the field? And that as a result, Iraqi nuclear scientists (“the real WMDs,” as Watts/Plame says) defected to a welcoming Iran instead? If so, then I have some property in Death Valley I’d like to sell you.
President Bush and other top level White House figures appear in the movie only in actual news footage, selectively chosen to suggest that they are conspiring in a “coordinated” coverup. But lesser players Rove and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s Chief of Staff, are more central to the script, which shows Libby intimidating CIA analysts so intensely that they burst into sweat and waves of nausea. He and Rove are also shown engaging in backroom manipulations to “bury” Plame and Wilson (the title itself comes from a quote which Hardball host Chris Matthews attributed to Rove, about Valerie being “fair game” – a phrase Rove says came from Matthews).
But the truth is, it was State Department official Richard Armitage – a Bush critic, not an evil neocon – who leaked Plame’s name, and who hid his involvement for many months while Rove and others unfairly bore the brunt of the investigation and of the public excoriation. In other words, as Horowitz writes in Party of Defeat, “the entire affair was concocted out of whole cloth by opponents of the war.” Rove, Libby, Cheney, Bush – the whole criminal pantheon of the Left’s fevered imagination – were not responsible for Plame’s outing (Libby was found guilty, though, of perjuring himself during the investigation). Yet Armitage’s name never appears in the script. And how could it? That would defuse the filmmakers’ intent to demonize Rove and Bush and to condemn the war as shameful, unjust American aggression.
Penn and Watts play the Wilsons as a couple whose only character flaws are their unshakeable professional integrity, love of country, and willingness to risk everything to speak truth to power. The script highlights the personal cost to Valerie Plame; even her friends turn on her for the "betrayal" of keeping her CIA job secret. “You lied to me for 20 years,” says her best friend in the script. “Who are you?”
Except that this isn’t what happened. Valerie says in her own autobiography that her close friends, without exception, were generously supportive and understanding, and that even old friends, distant relatives and long-lost acquaintances came out of the woodwork to offer their support. But hey, in fairness, the filmmakers have to ramp up the drama somehow.
Meanwhile, Penn’s worldly-wise Joe Wilson is busy speculating about government lies, fending off vicious “right-wing reporters” and lecturing captive audiences about having fearlessly confronted Saddam himself. “Have you met Saddam?” Wilson snaps at dinner guests casually discussing the Iraqi threat. “Have you looked him in the eye? Did he threaten to kill you? You don’t know Saddam. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Later, Penn/Wilson complains to the press that “those in the Highest Office sought to destroy the career of a public servant to punish me for speaking the truth.” If Penn, an actor who says journalists should be jailed for criticizing Hugo Chavez, can deliver a line like this with conviction, then perhaps he should get another Oscar.
To make sure we get the message that Penn’s Joe Wilson is a true American hero, one character tells him, “You’re a true American hero.” And modest too: “The real heroes," he replies, "are in Iraq right now fighting a war which was prosecuted on lies and falsehoods.” He got that half-right – the real heroes are fighting in Iraq (and Afghanistan), not here in the comfort of home undermining the war effort.
The anti-war Bush-bashing (yawn) continues to pile up. While driving Penn/Wilson in a taxi to the White House, a West African immigrant expresses his gratitude at being in the “Land of the Brave, Home of the Free” and out of war-torn Sierra Leone: “Over there we have no truth. Just power. Over here it’s a different world.” Apparently this praise for America wasn't "nuanced" enough for Penn/Wilson, who tells the driver, “I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” Leave it to an immigrant from an anarchic hellhole to appreciate America's freedoms, while the comfortable leftist broods about the "threat" of "right-wing reporters" and speechifies about imaginary Republican abuses of power. In a later scene, Valerie’s father tells her, “One day this country is gonna look back on these years, and it’s gonna hang its head. It’s gonna weep. Then it’s gonna stand up straight and walk on.” That "stand up and walk on" bit feels tacked on, considering that the Left seems to think America should be in a perpetual state of shame and apology.
Coincidentally, Valerie Plame Wilson is back on the fringes of the news again, thanks to the release of politico Rove’s memoir Courage and Consequence. This prompted terrorist sympathizer and Code Pink founder Jodie Evans to attempt to handcuff Rove at a recent book signing, shouting, “Look what you did! You outed a CIA officer! You lied to take us to war!” (Um, if Evans is going to attempt citizen’s arrests of war criminals, perhaps she could start with her associates in the Taliban and Hamas). Rather than just trashing the book with a one-star Amazon.com review, the Wilsons actually released a statement, dismissing Rove’s book as
a pathetically weak defense of the disastrous policies pursued by the Bush administration, involving our country in a war of choice based on false intelligence and badly tarnishing the good name of the United States of America.
Yes, very nuanced. But ultimately it’s hard to see the real-life Wilsons as victims. They ended up as the toast of the elitist, anti-war Left, with a glamorous Vanity Fair spread, a $2.5 million book deal for Valerie, and a feature film glorification starring Hollywood A-listers – albeit a film that seems destined to sputter and die right out of the gate.
One has to wonder if Sean Penn simply doesn’t care whether this movie does well at the box office - after all, how could he expect it to? Back when anti-war activist Robert Redford directed the 2007 talky bore Lions for Lambs, it was still possible for Hollywood to delude itself into thinking that America would flock to see such superstars as Redford, Cruise and Streep in a sanctimonious plea for pacifism.
But Lions for Lambs fizzled, as did every other Hollywood attempt to flagellate America for the supposedly pointless waste of Bush's wars, all the way up to last month's disastrous The Green Zone. (Meanwhile, the 2006 movie 300, an unabashed celebration of warrior virtues and love of country, has racked up $457 million without a single bankable star). If the American people can’t be lured into cinemas to sit through Hollywood's leftist morality tales even by a Bourne-style thriller featuring proven action star Matt Damon, then what chance at box office success does another smug, elitist, anti-war diatribe featuring the unlikable Sean Penn have?
Americans aren't buying it. They simply aren’t the morally unsophisticated, uninformed dullards that a condescending Hollywood believes them to be. Or is that too nuanced for the Hollywood Left to grasp?