Spy cover blown

Naomi Watts on the prepa­ra­tion for her role as a CIA spy in Fair Game.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ENVIRONMENT - By SCOTT KRAFT

Naomi Watts on the prepa­ra­tion for her role as a CIA spy in FairGame.

TO tell the big-screen tale of Va­lerie Plame, a real-life CIA spy whose covert iden­tity was blown by the White House, di­rec­tor Doug Li­man needed a spe­cial kind of ac­tress: some­one who could build an emo­tional wall around her­self and still con­vey “a sense that there’s a good per­son in­side her”.

He was con­vinced that that ac­tress was Naomi Watts. But af­ter a pre-shoot with Watts and costar Sean Penn last year, Li­man called his pro­ducer in a panic. “We’ve got to toughen Naomi up, a.s.a.p.,” he told Janet Zucker, “and we don’t have much time.”

He wasn’t sure it was even pos­si­ble. Plame had been a CIA op­er­a­tive who spent 17 years liv­ing a life of se­crecy and de­cep­tion. Watts was, by con­trast, a movie star who walked red car­pets, was trailed by an ador­ing en­tourage and, on top of it all, was breast­feed­ing a new baby. “She was a lit­tle soft,” Li­man said.

Two days later, the di­rec­tor drove his star to a para­mil­i­tary camp run by govern­ment contractors in Vir­ginia. Min­utes af­ter he left Watts there, an in­struc­tor threw her to the ground, bruis­ing her shin.

When she cried out in pain, the in­struc­tor glared at her. “Don’t say ‘ow’,” he said slowly, “un­less you need to go to the hos­pi­tal.”Over the next two days, Watts was “stripped of ev­ery­thing that cloaked her in spe­cial­ness,” Li­man said. “No­body was more sur­prised than me that it ac­tu­ally worked.”

The po­lit­i­cal thriller Fair Game, open­ing in Malaysian cine­mas to­day, re­vis­its one of the murkier episodes in the Ge­orge W. Bush pres­i­dency – the 2003 out­ing of Va­lerie Plame Wil­son by White House aides try­ing to dis­credit her hus­band Joe Wil­son, a for­mer am­bas­sador and vo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion critic played by Penn.

The blonde, blue-eyed spy and her blond, blue-eyed dop­pel­ganger were sit­ting on a sofa in a suite at the Wal­dorf As­to­ria re­cently, chat­ting like old friends.

Plame and Watts first got to know each other in a se­ries of tele­phone calls, be­fore shoot­ing be­gan.

“The roles of a covert CIA of­fi­cer and a Hollywood ac­tor don’t col­lide fre­quently, and I was very ner­vous about meet­ing her,” Watts said. “It’s not of­ten that I get star-struck but, meet­ing Va­lerie, I was def­i­nitely very im­pressed.”

For Plame, “I was get­ting this peek be­hind the Hollywood cur­tain and ... there’s a lot of...”

“Go ahead, say it,” Watts in­ter­jected, laugh­ing.

“... a lot of strange be­hav­iour,” Plame said, smil­ing. “It’s not my world of briefings and Pow­erPoints. But Naomi was so pro­fes­sional, and that just got my re­spect from the get-go. We just clicked.”

Af­ter sev­eral tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions, they met over a din­ner at Il Buco in New York. (“The wine was help­ful,” Plame said.) Watts said she wanted to know “all the sto­ries about the CIA and the se­crets”. But she learned that Plame, even four years af­ter leav­ing the CIA, was still bound by the agency’s se­crecy rules, “so I thought, ‘ OK, that’s not go­ing to hap­pen.’”

That led them into rich per­sonal ter­ri­tory, where both felt more com­fort­able. “At the end of the day, we’re both work­ing moth­ers, and we re­ally liked each other,” Plame said.

Fair Game res­ur­rects a ques­tion that will be de­bated for years: Were the warn­ings about Iraq’s sup­posed stock­piles of weapons of mass de­struc­tion an in­tel­li­gence fail­ure – or a fraud per­pe­trated by the White House? But the film, based on Plame and Wil­son’s mem­oirs, is aimed at an­other ques­tion: What hap­pens to a Washington cou­ple with two small chil­dren when they be­come the cen­tre of a po­lit­i­cal firestorm?

Plame was one of the CIA’s bright­est agents, grad­u­at­ing at the top of her class at The Farm, the CIA’s se­cret train­ing fa­cil­ity. She worked as a covert agent in Athens and later went deeper un­der­cover, as an op­er­a­tive with

Naomi Watts as a CIA spy in which is based on the true story of Va­lerie Plame Wil­son whose covert iden­tity was blown by the White House. “non-of­fi­cial cover”, mean­ing she had a fake, pri­vate-sec­tor iden­tity and no diplo­matic pro­tec­tion if cap­tured.

She even­tu­ally re­turned to CIA head­quar­ters and, shortly af­ter 9/11, be­came chief of op­er­a­tions for the Iraqi branch of the Coun­ter­pro­lif­er­a­tion Di­vi­sion, run­ning agents col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion on Iraq’s WMD pro­grammes. When Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney’s of­fice asked the CIA to in­ves­ti­gate Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence re­ports that Niger was sell­ing ura­nium to Iraq, a CIA col­league sug­gested that Plame’s hus­band, a re­tired diplo­mat who had post­ings in both Iraq and Niger, be dis­patched to look into it.

Al­though Wil­son’s re­port con­cluded that there was no ev­i­dence of a ura­nium sale, Bush and other ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials con­tin­ued to pub­licly cite the sale as a fact.

In July 2003, Wil­son wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times de­scrib­ing his find­ings, un­der the head­line “What I Didn’t Find in Africa”.

White House of­fi­cials tried to blunt the im­pact of the ar­ti­cle by whis­per­ing to re­porters that Wil­son’s mis­sion was lit­tle more than a jun­ket ar­ranged by his wife, who they named and iden­ti­fied as a CIA op­er­a­tive.

Con­ser­va­tive colum­nist Robert No­vak, cit­ing “two ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials” as sources, named her in print, ef­fec­tively blow­ing her cover (as well as that of other spies who had worked covertly for the same pri­vate com­pany).

A crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the leak led to the con­vic­tion of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s top aide (David An­drews in the movie), on charges of per­jury, ob­struc­tion of jus­tice and ly­ing to the FBI. His 30-month prison sen­tence was com­muted by Bush.

Face-to-face

Sit­ting to­gether for an in­ter­view, the for­mer spy and the ac­tress made an ar­rest­ing power duo: Plame, stun­ning in black slacks and turtle­neck, and Watts, a clas­sic beauty, in a black skirt and blazer over a hal­ter with a scooped, softly ruf­fled neck­line. Nearly iden­ti­cal shades of thick, blond hair fell to their shoul­ders.

Plame, 47, is the mother of 10-year-old twins and lives with her hus­band in Santa Fe, New Mex­ico. She works part-time at the Santa Fe In­sti­tute and is writ­ing a spy novel about, no sur­prise, a fe­male CIA op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer “who doesn’t rely only on phys­i­cal­ity and guns but uses her skills and smarts to mine in­tel­li­gence”.

Watts, 42, lives in New York with ac­tor Liev Schreiber and their two chil­dren, ages three and one.

She was born in Bri­tain (her fa­ther was Pink Floyd’s sound en­gi­neer) and spent her teenage years in Aus­tralia. She re­lo­cated to Amer­ica to jump-start her act­ing ca­reer but strug­gled for more than a decade be­fore land­ing the role of an as­pir­ing ac­tress in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

She earned an Os­car nom­i­na­tion in 2004 for lead ac­tress in 21 Grams and played the Fay Wray role in Peter Jack­son’s 2005 re­make of King Kong.

Plame’s back­ground is all-Amer­i­can. The daugh­ter of an Air Force of­fi­cer and one-time US Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil staffer, she went to Penn State and pledged the Pi Beta Phi soror­ity.

She joined the CIA af­ter grad­u­a­tion, though even her clos­est friends only knew her cover story, that she worked for the US State Depart­ment and, later, as an en­ergy an­a­lyst for a pri­vate com­pany.

Watts was liv­ing in New York when the scan­dal broke. “We all knew the story,” she said.

“Re­ally? You were aware of it when it hap­pened?” Plame asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Watts said. “Va­lerie, you were a house­hold name.”

Al­though Watts holds a Bri­tish pass­port and has an Aus­tralian ac­cent, she wasn’t hes­i­tant to play Plame and made her de­ci­sion af­ter read­ing the first few pages of the script.

“The world is a small place now, and this didn’t feel like a story that be­longed only to Amer­ica,” Watts said.

Fair Game, which was screened at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, ar­rives in US the­atres at a po­lit­i­cally charged moment. Pres­i­dent Bush’s mem­oirs are com­ing out next month and the mid-term elec­tion cam­paign has seen the re-emer­gence of two fa­mil­iar faces in the film – Cheney and pres­i­den­tial ad­vi­sor Karl Rove.

All co­in­ci­den­tal, says Li­man, the di­rec­tor of The Bourne Iden­tity and Mr & Mrs Smith, who took a break from Hollywood in 2008 to make com­mer­cials for Barack Obama.

“This is not a polemic,” he said. “The core of this movie is about our right as Amer­i­can cit­i­zens to crit­i­cise our govern­ment with­out feel­ing reprisal. That’s an is­sue that unites all of us.”

Get­ting the green light to do a po­lit­i­cal film is rare in Hollywood, and this project be­gan when Janet Zucker was in­tro­duced to Plame in Washington. They be­came friends but it took a year for her and her hus­band, Jerry Zucker, to per­suade the Wil­sons to help make the movie. Two Bri­tish broth­ers, Jez and JohnHenry But­ter­worth, were brought in to write the screen­play.

The emo­tional heart of Fair Game is the cou­ple caught in the mid­dle of a fiery par­ti­san fight, try­ing to sur­vive amid death threats, with re­porters camped on their lawn.

Plame’s work as an op­er­a­tive was over and, though she re­mained at the CIA for three years, she was moved into ad­min­is­tra­tive du­ties. Her hus­band’s rep­u­ta­tion as a vet­eran diplo­mat was un­der at­tack and his con­sult­ing busi­ness stalled. Their mar­riage be­gan to un­ravel and they talked about sep­a­rat­ing, but, in the end, de­cided to stay to­gether.

Watch­ing a screen­ing of the movie re­cently, Plame said, “I felt the pain all over again. You’d think I would get over it.” The scenes where Watts and Penn are fight­ing, she said, were par­tic­u­larly painful. “It hurts. It re­ally does.”

“I hate to sound corny here,” Watts added, “but it said a lot about their love for each other that they were able to hold it to­gether.”

Fair Game in­cludes a few fic­tional char­ac­ters and scenes, but it hews fairly closely to the facts. The Wil­sons’ books have reached a much smaller au­di­ence, so the film is likely to be­come the nar­ra­tive that most view­ers re­mem­ber.

“The movie is con­densed, but it is a very ac­cu­rate de­pic­tion of events and I’m very proud of it,” Plame said. “I think it al­lows view­ers to draw their own con­clu­sions.”

“And if peo­ple think I look like Naomi,” she added with a laugh, “I’m good.” – Los An­ge­les Times/McClatchy-Tribune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

n Fair Game opens in Malaysian cine­mas to­day.

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