Fair moviemaking?

Fair Game
Starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts; Directed by Doug Liman

In July 2003, Joseph C. Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times (titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa”) disputing the evidence used by the Bush Administration to justify the war against Iraq. The film Fair Game is about what led up to that op-ed, the fall-out from it, and how its publication affected him and his wife, Valarie Plame. To get a perspective on this film, The Colorado Statesman has agreed to publish an op-ed by Doug Young regarding Fair Game.


What I Found in the Multiplex
By Doug Young?

DENVER, COLORADO — Did the director of Fair Game manipulate our feelings and intelligence about Joseph Wilson, Valerie Plame and the Bush Administration to justify an invasion of the movie theaters to see it?

Based on my experience with the film, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to the people and events it depicts was tweaked to enhance its dramatic effect.

For 12 years, from 1998 to 2010, I have been the film critic for The Colorado Statesman. At this position, I have had the pleasure of seeing many movies and providing various perspectives regarding them. In early 2010, there were some news stories about a review of a film called Fair Game that purported to provide insight and suggestions on whether moviegoers should plunk down their dwindling cash to see it. That unnamed film reviewer who went to the multiplex to see this film? That’s me.

It was my years of experience that lead me to the theater to see this film. I was informed by officials with the production and my editor that my readership had questions about this particular film. While I had not yet seen it, I was told that it referred to a dramatic rendition of the people and events regarding purported fabricated evidence that Iraq was securing uranium from the African nation of Niger for the purpose of nuclear weapons production. My editor and the film’s media reps asked if I would travel to Cannes, France, to check out the film at the Cannes Film Festival so that I could provide a response to the readership.

In May 2010, I arrived at the Cannes movie theater where I had been a movie patron many times in the past as an official with The Colorado Statesman. The theater was much as I remembered it. Air conditioned winds had chilled the air. Through the dim light, I could see the many film buffs in the seats in front of me. Most people had badges around their necks, leaving their eyes fixated forward on the screen.

After consulting with the ushers, I made my way to a seat. The mission I undertook was discreet but by no means secret. While I paid my own expenses (my time was offered pro bono), I made it abundantly clear to everyone I met that I was acting on behalf of myself and The Colorado Statesman.

Sean Penn in Fair Game

The next couple of minutes I met other film buffs and critics. For reasons that are understandable, the theater staff kept a close eye on us to make sure we were not about to secretly record the film. I was not surprised, then, when one of the patrons told me that she knew about the film and that she already knew all about everything that would likely be depicted in it. Nevertheless, she and I agreed that my time would be best spent watching the film itself and forming my own opinion.

I spent the next two hours watching great actors: Sean Penn as Joseph Wilson, Naomi Watts as his wife and CIA employee Valerie Plame, and other actors playing governmental operatives and former government officials. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly based on past events surrounding the actions of Valarie Plame and Joe Wilson and how they were treated by members of the Bush Administration and the press.

Given the structure of the film, it would be exceedingly difficult not to compare what we were witnessing to the actual events that were the subject of much media attention and analysis. If the filmmakers wanted to elicit our memory of these events, they could not have done a better job. The whole film, which is based on books by the Wilsons, has the feel of a documentary in this regard. Moreover, because the two lead actors closely resemble their real life counterparts, selling this story was a simple matter. In short, there’s simply so much great acting here that a sale of what transpired was not hard to convey.

(As for the actual events, I never personally saw them. But news accounts have pointed out that the film is without glaring errors — it is made, for example, by the memories of officials who are no longer in government — and is probably not forged. But then there’s the fact that some of the participants may formally deny some of the depictions and charges made in the film.)

Before I left the theater, I documented my findings, which were consistent with many others. I also shared my conclusions with other film buffs and reviewers. In early June, I arrived back in the United States and promptly wrote a detailed briefing. I later shared my conclusions with the others. There was nothing secret or earth-shattering in my report, just as there was nothing secret about my trip to the theater in Cannes.

Though I did not file a written report, there should be at least some record in The Colorado Statesman's archives confirming my mission. The documents should include my reports from the Cannes Film Festival, a Cannes screening guide listing Fair Game as one of the films in competition, and a film schedule. While others may not have seen any of these materials, I have spent enough time as a reviewer and film festival attendee to know that this is standard operating procedure.

I thought the Fair Game matter was settled and went back to my life. (I did take part in the review of other films, arguing that some Cannes films were preferable and that many Hollywood films were not worth the threat of a theater invasion.) In November 2010, however, Fair Game re-emerged. The studio decided to publish ads asserting that this film was finally being released in the United States and that seeing it posed an immediate danger of reminding us of what happened regarding Joseph Wilson’s op-ed that lead to the disclosure of his wife, Valarie Plame, as a CIA agent. As evidence, the ads cited release dates from a studio company.

Then, on November 5, 2010, Sean Penn, citing the words of Joseph Wilson, repeated the charges about the Bush Administration’s fabrication of the Iraqi efforts to buy uranium from Africa.

The next day, I reminded a friend of my trip to Cannes and suggested that if Fair Game had been referring to those events regarding the disclosure of Valarie Plame as a CIA agent in retribution for Joseph Wilson’s New York Times op-ed challenging the Niger uranium evidence, then its conclusions were borne out by the depictions of facts as I saw them. He replied that perhaps the film was also trying to make a point about the dangerous effects this disclosure had on the covert operatives who Ms. Plame worked with while she was employed at the CIA, and the strain this, and Mr. Wilson’s op-ed, had on their marriage. At the time, I accepted that explanation.

Those are the facts surrounding my efforts. My editor asked a serious question. I was asked to help formulate the answer. I did so, and I have every confidence that the answer I provided was circulated to the appropriate officials within The Colorado Statesman.

The question now is how that answer was or was not used by The Colorado Statesman. If my impressions were deemed valuable, I understand that they may get published (though I would be very interested to know what others thought). If, however, these impressions are ignored because they do not fit certain preconceptions about Fair Game and the events it depicts, then a legitimate argument can be made that filmgoers may go to this film under false pretenses. (It’s worth remembering that my opinions are just that, and I will say that I was “trying once again to produce a useful film review.”) At a minimum, The Colorado Statesman, which authorized the use of my reviews at the editor’s behest, should want to know if my assertions about Fair Game were warranted.

I was convinced before I saw Fair Game that I knew all about the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein and the events that transpired regarding Scooter Libby, Joseph Wilson, President Bush, and Valarie Plame concerning that threat.

But were these dangers the only things that Fair Game told us about? I had to find out. Fair Game is also about what happens to real people when the stakes are very high regarding the actions of our elected officials concerning America’s foreign policy. It depends on the sanctity of its information and its dramatic depictions. For these reasons, questioning the selective use of intelligence depicted in this film is neither idle sniping nor “revisionist history,” as detractors may have suggested. The act of filmmaking is a free speech matter of a democracy, taken when there are movie screens and seats to fill. More than 300 American movies have been released and forgotten this year already. We have a duty to ensure that the good ones with a serious message are not forgotten for the right reasons.

For the record, The Colorado Statesman did, indeed, solicit Mr. Young’s opinions on this important subject and sent him to Cannes this year as our ambassador for the truth. His research on this mission has been duly passed on to the appropriate officials at the newspaper. His comments above represent what we feel are in the best interests of the public domain. However, other items are still being assessed by higher levels of security within the publishing industry. We will have no further comments about this at the moment and have requested that Mr. Young refrain from elaborating further on potential sub plots of Fair Game until full disclosure has been completed. We acknowledge that Mr. Young acted as an agent of The Colorado Statesman at the time of these findings.