Why “Message” Films Don’t Deliver the Message

On Thanksgiving night I saw Fair Game, the movie based on Valerie Plame‘s memoir of the same name.  Naomi Watts portrays Valerie Plame and Sean Penn plays her husband, Joseph C. Wilson.  Wilson was the Deputy Chief at the US Embassy in Iraq just prior to Operation Desert Storm; due to past experience with both Iraq and the impoverished, landlocked country of Niger, Wilson was contacted by the CIA in 2002 and asked to visit Niger to investigate leads that Saddam had acquired a large quantity of uranium from that country for enrichment into weapons-grade material.  From his investigation he didn’t think the reports could be true, and he was apparently stunned by 16 words in President George W. Bush’s  2003 State of the Union Address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”  While he held his peace for a while, several months after the invasion of Iraq Wilson shot back to set the record straight on what he considered transparently-manipulated intelligence with a now-famous New York Times op-ed entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.”

Having embarrassed the Bush Administration’s key justification for the Iraq War, some members of the Bush Administration’s staff decided to punish them.  A week after the op-ed ran in the Times, Robert Novak, a Conservative reporter with an undeniable temper, revealed that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was an operative in the CIA.  While this particular op-ed revelation actually upended ongoing CIA operations (along with subjecting Plame and husband to harassment and they and their children to threats of violence), Novak was never charged with a crime because of a lack of evidence that he knew she was undercover.  I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby–Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff–did break the law, however, and the movie suggests Karl Rove did as well, in obtaining this information and providing it to Novak.

The movie works as a form of revenge.  The Liberal Ironist doesn’t at all fault the Wilsons’ desire to make their story public, as it’s pretty clear they were hard-working defenders of their country betrayed by taskmasters of an ideological Presidency about to undertake a massive social engineering project abroad, facts about the mission’s necessity be damned.  They were victims of a campaign of character assassination, and Plame’s career was ruined as retaliation for public criticism her husband had waited until after the Iraq invasion to issue.  That said, the movie version of these events remains a human interest piece, contributing little not known or assumed by those following the story.  A good movie does not have a shelf life, but the purpose of this and other “message” films is to draw attention to a particular, historical outrage.  Accepting as I do Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty‘s definition of a Liberal–someone who believes that cruelty is the worst thing we do, and that its minimization is the proper ends of our politics–I support the purpose of dramatizing injustice in a way that is of general interest and changes our perspective; here I feel Fair Game only has points of intersection with the “real story” or was largely-informed by other books or movies I’d read and seen offering a critical argument.

Part of the problem of the movie is highlighted by those characters whom I thought stood out the most–Sean Penn’s Joseph Wilson and David Andrews‘ Scooter Libby.  While the movie is supposed to have more of a focus on Plame, these 2 personalities take on a larger-than-life aspect.  Penn’s Wilson is brilliant and passionately-patriotic but will not suffer fools and literally won’t shut up to save his neck.  Andrews’ Libby is a perfect Neoconservative, ready to proclaim the secular messiah of American exceptionalism.  In his few scenes he exudes a perfect arrogance, personalizing critical questioning of the Administration line among intelligence analysts long before he gives the slightest thought to Joseph Wilson.

As “message” films go, it’s relatively-interesting, aided by effective performances and its real story of criminal acts and character assassination; this story is so disturbing it practically sells itself. That said, it’s still a “message” film, in this case full of names and dates that simply lose relevance with the passage of time. There have been other movies about Neoconservative callousness and arrogance–among them Syriana, W. and In the Loop–which told this story better, whether incidentally or centrally. While Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame’s desire to set their story straight and expose the intelligence-manipulation and vicious personal vendettas of the Bush Administration is more than understandable, in movie form this looks like a good case of an important story that fails to feel like a significant one.

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