Fair Game: Valerie Plame, Spy Left in Cold?

In late 2001, Valerie Plame was juggling two lives: her personal life as the wife of retired ambassador Joe Wilson and mother to their young twins, and her secret professional life, running covert missions for the CIA. As leader of the agency’s Joint Task Force on Iraq, Valerie was tasked with infiltrating Saddam’s weapons programs at a crucial moment in the run-up to the Iraq war.

“Certainly it was a fascinating story from a political point of view,” says Fair Game producer Jerry Zucker. “But the more we heard from Valerie and Joe about the effect this had on their marriage, the more we realized that here was a deeply personal human drama.”

The Wilson’s story had played out very publicly. Dispatched by the U.S. government to Niger to confirm reports of a large purchase of uranium by the Iraqi government, Joe Wilson concluded that the rumors were unfounded, but his findings were ignored by the Bush administration.

The former State Department official was no friend of Saddam Hussein. He was the last American diplomat to meet with the dictator after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, personally demanding the withdrawal of Iraqi forces. He also faced down Hussein when the Iraqi President threatened the lives of any foreigners living in Iraq, rescuing thousands of Americans before he left the country himself.

But Wilson, an inveterate truth teller, was outraged by the White House’s decision to falsely cite the debunked uranium sale as proof that Iraq was currently on the verge of producing a nuclear weapon. Shortly after he published an article refuting the claim in The New York Times, Valerie Plame’s identity as a covert officer was revealed. The Wilsons, their family and scores of her associates were deliberately endangered. The unidentified source was clearly a high-ranking Bush administration official.

“You couldn’t have made this up,” says producer Janet Zucker.

After learning more about the Wilsons, the producers realized the story was much deeper and richer than the headlines. Joe and Valerie were a couple whose lives had been turned upside down in the most wrenching personal terms.

Each reacted very differently to the campaign against them. Joe fired back with both barrels, alleging that the revelation was criminal act. But after a lifetime in the shadows, Valerie was reluctant to go public. “Here was a woman who led a secret life for a long time,” says Jerry Zucker. “Her most intimate friends thought she was a venture capitalist. Suddenly she is thrust into the spotlight and revealed as a spy, forced to speak out publicly and defend her life. It was an incredible reversal.”

The Zuckers commissioned prize-winning screenwriter Jez Butterworth and his brother John-Henry Butterworth to craft a screenplay based on the Wilsons’ experiences. The Butterworths, who are British, had no idea who Valerie Plame was when they were contacted. “We also knew nothing at all about the U.S. political system, except for the most general knowledge,” says Jez. “But the story was so intriguing, we were eager to learn more about it.”

The screenwriters saw the potential cinematic gold in the characters and conflict in the story, recognizing that what happened to the Wilsons after Valerie was “outed” struck at the very heart of their family and their marriage. “I’m not sure I know how to write political scenes even though my political sympathies were with the Wilsons,” Jez says. “But characters I know.”

Yet when the Butterworths signed on to write the screenplay, they found themselves facing restrictions unlike any they had ever encountered before. Even Valerie Plame’s unpublished memoir was off limits to them until the CIA finished vetting it. “We first became interested in making Fair Game because we saw an opportunity to tell the story of two remarkable people at the center of a pivotal moment in history,” says Janet Zucker. “As we began developing the project, we discovered that conveying what happened to Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson was complicated by a number of factors, including the fact that some of the work Valerie did for the CIA remains classified.”

So although the filmmakers had the rights to Plame’s book and her cooperation as a consultant on the movie; she could not reveal any information the government still considered to be secret. The writers were left with no recourse but to conduct research on their own. “We did an immense amount,” says Jez. “First about the U.S. government and the CIA, and then about the Wilsons themselves.”

“The research period was terrifically exciting,” adds John-Henry. “It was all very cloak and dagger. People were reluctant to talk about Valerie at first, especially when they heard we were researching a movie. In fact, we were registered at our hotel as construction executives.”

Because of the amount of press coverage and speculation surrounding what became known as “the Plame affair,” firsthand accounts were crucial to getting the story right. “The case was covered in the press like a football match,” John-Henry says. “Everyone took a side. We needed to know what actually happened.

“No one we encountered was very keen to be interviewed and everyone insisted that their remarks be kept off the record,” he continues. “But after the 2006 mid-term elections, the political atmosphere changed in Washington. People felt a lot freer to speak than they did earlier.”

The brothers interviewed scores of people, including former intelligence personnel, journalists, lawyers and congressmen. Along with Janet Zucker, they attended the trial of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the only government official to be charged in the Plame case. Eventually they were allowed to read Valerie’s memoir, but only after it had been released in heavily redacted form by CIA’s Publications Review Board.

The more the Butterworths dug, the more confident they were that this was a story in which the personal surmounted the political. “When we saw the Wilsons at the time, we sensed at once that we were encountering a man and woman whose day-to-day existence had been turned inside out,” says Jez. “They were waging a battle for their lives.”

In order to tell this complex story in a two-hour movie, the Butterworths changed some names and created composite characters. “For example, Dr. Hassan and her physicist brother, who in the film provide Valerie with information on the Iraqi nuclear arms program, are fictional characters,” says Jerry Zucker. “They are meant to be representative of the types of intelligence sources that Valerie might have contacted in her work as a covert CIA officer.”

As the elements fell into place, the Zuckers brought the project to Bill Pohlad and his company, River Road. River Road specializes in projects that blend groundbreaking creative objectives with commercial viability, including the Academy Award winning Brokeback Mountain, A Prairie Home Companion, Into the Wild and Terrence Malick’s upcoming The Tree of Life.

“I read the script and found it really compelling,” Pohlad says. “At River Road, we try to avoid things that are too timely and focus on stories we think will stand the test of time. At first, given the topic, there was some concern about the current events aspect of the subject. When I read the script I realized it transcended that. What happens to Valerie and Joe on a personal level is universal. We all agreed that the political nature of this film was secondary to that.”

The filmmakers made every attempt to present the story as truthfully as possible, according to Pohlad. &
ldquo;But Fair Game is not meant to be a purely historical document or political polemic,” says the producer. “It is an emotional portrait of two extraordinarily brave and determined people caught up in the maelstrom of history and of a marriage that survived the ultimate test.

“What we hope people will take away is not so much that someone was wrong and someone was right,” he continues. “This is a story about people who were unafraid to speak up in the face of the abuse of power and became involved in the way our country works, versus stepping back and letting it just happen to them.” Pohlad was confident director Doug Liman brought the perfect skill set to the project. “Doug’s background directing spy thrillers and his ability to pull off action were attractive,” says Pohlad. “But we also knew Doug would able to translate what was going on within Joe and Valerie’s life. He captured the drama of Valerie’s double life and the upheaval that occurs when her cover is blown and she has to deal with everyone who thought they knew her.”

Liman was already a fan of Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s work. ”They had done some work for me on Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” says the director. “It’s no exaggeration to say that they are my favorite screenwriters. I had approached them probably a half dozen times to write something for me, and they had turned me down each time. When Janet and Jerry brought me this script, I dropped everything.”

Liman says the film felt like a continuation of his earlier fictional work. “But it was the real Mr. & Mrs. Smith. What set the story apart was that it was essentially about a marriage, not a lecture on politics. It is a story that would be relevant a hundred years ago or a hundred years from now. Bill Pohlad, one of the producers, said that Fair Game was about a war, but not the war in Iraq. It was about the war in the Wilson household. That was the story I wanted to film.”

Even before meeting the Wilsons, the director felt a strong connection with Valerie and Joe. “My attraction has always been for characters, not action or politics,” he explains. “Here were two extraordinary human beings with a terrifically exciting story to tell. Having been ‘outed’ was a desperate situation for Valerie Plame Wilson and her family, and it could have destroyed them. I wanted to find a silver lining for the innocent people involved.”

Liman learned Valerie Plame was what is known as a non-official covert operative or NOC. “That made the whole situation unbelievably intriguing,” Liman says. “NOCs are the real James Bonds. They are so secret that one NOC can’t even point to another with any certainty. For my movie-going dollars, NOCs are the most interesting figures in the CIA.

“When you sign on as a CIA undercover operations officer, you agree to a life in which you can never ever take credit for anything you do,” he continues. “Yet Valerie chose to marry the exact opposite type of person, a man who is confrontational in the best possible way. To watch these people who are of such different temperaments take on the most powerful White House in the history of our country had the makings of a great drama.”

Liman insists he had no political agenda in making Fair Game. “My priority was to stay on track and not get sucked into the politics of the story,” he says. “Politics were like a siren calling from the rocky shoals along the shore. I had to turn a deaf ear every time I walked onto the set.”