The creators of this film have done something new. They’ve taken an event from recent history and dramatized it! Wow! Now THAT’S innovation.
Actually, that is a bit overdone, but I think it is still valid. This is a fantastically made film that is very exciting to watch. The one thing it does feel, however, is out-of-place. Had this film been released in 2006 (or in 2025) it would have been among the best political films of all time. But as it stands, I am not sure what the point of the film is. It is hard to be angry – all of the people involved are gone from Washington, disgraced, and (in at least one case) convicted. It almost feels as there is too much distance to be outraged, but not enough distance for us to learn from these mistakes.
It is essentially trying to answer that age-old question: “if a tree falls down in the woods and no one is around, does it make a noise?” For once, I have to pause while I think about the answer.
The film is based on the Valerie Plame incident. For those who have forgotten, Plame was a CIA operative who was gathering intelligence on potential arms sales between Niger and Iraq before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But Plame (Naomi Watts) and her husband Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn) both find that several problems with the case. Wilson in particular publishes an opinions piece about how no major uranium sale to Iraq could have happened. Later, Plame is outed as a CIA operative (effectively ending her lengthy career) in a major newspaper article. During a subsequent leak investigation (after all, Plame’s career would have been top-secret) evidence comes to light that members of the White House Staff, in particular Scooter Libby (David Andrews) may very well have been involved.
So much of the film works because it does not try to soften its information. It points figure, it names names, and it shows some rather bizarre behind the door dealings. It also does not try to hit audiences over the head with its message. After all, many smart people were fooled into believing some WMD stories – and not just because of their political views. Trying to turn the film into another liberals good/Republicans dumb would have been too easy. The film avoids that trap by making each of the characters seem dedicated to doing the best possible job they can, especially considering the high stakes. Plame is depicted as an ideal employee for the CIA, and no one tries to defend Hussein’s rule (he is directly referred to as a monster by Wilson). It is a fair film – I will never say otherwise. And from a movie starring Sean Penn, that is saying something.
But then why am I not convinced that this is the right film for the right time? It almost feels like the equivalent of Saturday Night Live making Nixon jokes in 1977. We are almost looking to move on as a nation. It is important to remind us of events such as this, but the film still has a desperate energy about how change is needed – even though we have changed administrations and seemed to have already realized it.
Still though, the film’s elements are all there. The script is smart, the performances (particularly Watts’) are outstanding, and the film is impeccably directed. I know there are many people who will like it, myself included. But a story like this should just have a much larger impact than it actually does. It could have been All The President’s Men for the Bush era. Instead, it is far too limp.
One final thing that I should talk about – how is Bush portrayed? After all, this is a man who is hated almost as much as Nixon and will probably become the poster boy for a broken administration, which is why I think the film may have been better if it came out later. But Bush is never really portrayed at all, except on the TV screen repeating speeches that have long since been debunked. I think that this is Bush’s ultimate legacy – for all the bad he did, it was probably out of his control. Had the film shown him directly interacting with the CIA about these events, it would have taken a very sinister tone. But he is merely the good-hearted puppet who is being controlled by much more draconian figures. It reminds me sort of the way Oliver Stone portrayed Nixon in Nixon – not as a bad man, but as a man who was being controlled by the system. I think it’s fair.