It turns out that being a spy is not glamorous at all, especially when you are the mother of twins. Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) does not get to pick up a bunch of fun gadgets from Q or change from a wetsuit into a ball gown to crash a party at the palatial home of the bad guy. What she does do is a lot of tough, gritty research and a lot of painstaking relationship building with people who have every reason not to trust her. And sometimes she also had to threaten people who were pretty scary. And then come home and make dinner for her husband and children.
Her job at the CIA requires judgment, skill, courage, intelligence (in both senses of the word), loyalty, integrity, and the ability to keep a lot of secrets. While she had all of that, the people around her did not, and she found herself outed as a spy in the press, not for anything she did but because the government wanted to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn). Suddenly she was out of a job but still not permitted to speak publicly, even to respond to the false and disparaging statements being made about her.
The problem was not that the White House made a mistake in thinking — and saying in the State of the Union address — that there was evidence that Iraq was making an effort to buy uranium from Africa to make nuclear weapons. The problem was that the White House made a mistake about how to respond when they were publicly contradicted. Former Ambassador Joe Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times saying that he had been sent to Niger by the CIA to investigate this rumor and found no evidence of any such transaction, explaining the basis for his conclusion. Instead of responding on the substance, pointing to a better source of information, or accepting his conclusion and providing additional justification for concerns about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the White House decided to discredit Joe Wilson, which involved telling the press that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a spy.
Director Doug Liman (who was his own cinematographer here) can make a scene with two people across a desk as gripping as the action scenes in he gave us in “The Bourne Identity” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” Based on the books by Plame and Wilson and on court transcripts and other records made available since the trial, he has given us their side of the story, with the leak of Plame’s role a weapon of mass destruction aimed at their reputations and their family. Because it is from their point of view, they are in almost every scene. That means we never see who is plotting against them or what the plot is; we just know that the most powerful men the world has ever known see them as “fair game,” or, even worse, as collateral damage. Liman, whose father was counsel in the Iran-Contra investigation, understands the culture of Washington well, the wonky dinner party debates, the show-boating, the passion, the long hours, the patriotism and the partisanship, the ends/means balancing act, and the way that sometimes everything boils down to a kind of middle school clique-ish brattiness.
Watts and Penn are outstanding, very compelling in the scenes about national security and even more so as what is going on affects their marriage. Penn lets us see that Wilson can be a bit of a blowhard and Watts lets us see that Plame knows that, can be frustrated by it, but loves him because she understands that it is a part of his passionate engagement with policy. Watts makes Plame a serious professional who achieves her objectives with preparation and diligence, though her being an exceptionally attractive woman made it easier to diminish and marginalize her, and she contributed to that by posing for Vanity Fair. The best surprise of the film is David Andrews as Scooter Libby, a wonderfully layered performance that shows us his mistrust of the career staff and his insecurity about the way they saw him. At the end of the day, you don’t need a Dr. Evil to be the bad guy. You just need a bully who thinks he can get away with it.