Taste defines us. And so everyone in Washington has a favorite Washington movie. A few years ago, the president of National Journal’s parent company (then at another news outlet) organized a series of promotional dinners for The Week, featuring D.C. big shots and their favorite films. For NBC’s Chris Matthews, it was Dave, the Kevin Kline comedy about an everyman and presidential look-alike who winds up in the Oval Office. Sen. Lindsey Graham, an Air Force veteran, picked Seven Days in May, the Cold War thriller in which a renegade general played by Burt Lancaster tries to overthrow the president. Bob Scheiffer at CBS picked Being There, the existential comedy from the novel by Jerzy Kosinski.
You could add Fair Game to the list, because it captures Washington in ways that are subtle and important. The film, which opens in wide release next week, is about the CIA leak case, and the title is drawn from how Karl Rove told Matthews that the CIA agent Valerie Plame was fair game for critics of her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson.
Wilson, you’ll recall, was dispatched by the CIA in 2002 at the behest of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office to investigate whether Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium from the African country of Niger. Wilson came back with the answer no, and he was outraged when President Bush nevertheless stuck with the claim in his 2003 State of the Union address, which made the case for war with Iraq. Just three days after Wilson attacked the speech in a New York Times op-ed, Robert Novak, the conservative columnist, blew Valerie Plame’s cover.
The betrayal ended her nearly two decades of service as a covert operative working on nuclear proliferation, and it was potentially a crime under a 1982 law that makes it illegal to knowingly reveal the identity of a covert agent. Her outing led to the appointment of a special prosecutor and an investigation that ensnared some of Washington’s best-known journalists, including the late Tim Russert, Bob Woodward, Judith Miller—who spent 85 days in jail before revealing her source—and me. (Rove leaked Plame’s identity to me.)
In the end, no one was indicted for outing Plame, and Rove escaped indictment on perjury and obstruction of justice charges; the vice president’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, was not so lucky, though Bush commuted his sentence. Plame? She lost her career. She and her family now live in New Mexico.
The film avoids the journalists who were ensnared in the case, which was just fine with me because George Clooney was unavailable. Instead, it focuses on the personal cost the Wilsons paid and, in a larger sense, the costs of any successful Washington career.
Washington films are defined by certain tropes: the senator’s mistress; nonexistent places such as the “Georgetown Metro” stop in No Way Out; and the all-is-revealed rainy meeting on a bench on the National Mall, which occurs even in Fair Game. But this movie is self-consciously family-focused—a wise, slow, and un-D.C. choice by director Doug Liman, who is known for such fast-paced thrillers as the Bourne series and is himself the scion of a political family. (His father, the late Arthur Liman, was the Senate counsel for the Iran-Contra Committee in the 1980s and a prominent New York lawyer.)
The film has less in common with the paranoid spy thrillers of the ’70s—Three Days of the Condor, for instance, or The Parallax View—and more with Parenthood or Baby Boom. Liman’s Plame is a working mom with two preschoolers. Yeah, her duties involve interrupting a weapons shipment in Malaysia and securing the evacuation of nuclear scientists from Iraq, but she’s still looking for day care and wondering what’s for dinner.
Her work is James Bond, but there’s a certain normalcy to it. Lying is the norm. It’s her outing that begets chaos. She is subsequently pilloried as a glorified secretary who sent her husband on a junket—all of which is absurd. There’s no Four Seasons in Niger, and were she not a real spy, the CIA would never have asked the Justice Department to investigate her outing under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
Yet Plame’s story makes a larger point about life for Washington transplants: the stress of living away from home. Long hours are a staple of life in New York or Los Angeles, too, but extended periods away are unique to D.C. Just ask any member of Congress or State Department careerist in this city.
More important, in Washington there’s always the risk of unwanted, unexpected fame—of ending up in The Post’s Reliable Source or on MSNBC. For every CIA agent who’s been outed, there are any number of congressional staffers or journalists (me included) who have found themselves suddenly better known than they ever anticipated. It’s a city where almost anyone can wake up to find camera crews on the lawn. Liman hints at the headiness that comes with that: Joe Wilson, portrayed by Sean Penn, doesn’t look exactly displeased to end up on the lecture circuit. But I can attest that the director also captures the strain as well. The Wilson marriage nearly comes undone. It’s not pretty, and it lacks the frisson of, say, Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward meeting Deep Throat in a parking garage. But it is the Washington where we live.
E-mail Matthew Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on twitter @mattizcoop.
This article appears in the October 27, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.