The director of Fair Game and its star Naomi Watts talk about real-life political intrigue and making entertainment mean something.
Doug Liman: Political junkie
The Valerie Plame story has arrived on our cinema screens at what, in film-production terms, is breakneck speed.
In July 2003, a New York Times op-ed piece written by the former diplomat Joseph Wilson stated that the American administration had manipulated intelligence data to make the case for the invasion of Iraq and the existence of weapons of mass destruction. George W Bush's White House administration responded by leaking the identity of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a covert CIA agent and said that Wilson was given a mission to Niger not because of his eminent knowledge of the region, but because of whom he knew, and that therefore his "expert" testimony could not be trusted.
It was the only time the American government has ever outed one of its own spies.
Given the explosive nature of the story, it is unsurprising that the picture attracted stellar names. The Bourne Identity director Doug Liman was situated behind the camera, Naomi Watts signed on to what she calls "one of the female roles of a lifetime," and Sean Penn climbed onboard to play the role of Wilson.
The film, which was co-produced by Imagenation (a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Media Company, which also publishes The National), has its gala screening tonight at the Emirates Palace as part of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
The spy thriller argues that the lives of several of Plame's contacts were put in jeopardy by the remarkable White House action, and lays out an attack on the American media for its willingness to accept the government version of events at face value rather than spend time and money investigating the truth.
Liman jumped at the script when it was sent to him by the British screen writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, the brothers who had written his previous, but much more light-hearted, spy hit Mr & Mrs Smith. The director says it was the characters, rather than the politics, that attracted him: "At heart, she was a fascinating spy and the more we researched the topic, the more we got to know her and understand what it means to be a secret agent today.
"And Joe Wilson is a colourful character and these two people were married and found themselves in a maelstrom of political intrigue."
The research also forced Liman to question the prejudices he held about the Middle East. "There are so many aspects to the profound impact this film had on me regarding the Middle East," he says. "First of all, like most Americans, the Middle East for me seems to be just this mysterious place with all these wars that you don't quite understand. Prior to this movie, if you said the word Beirut to me, I'd think war. Now I think lighting equipment and home to lots of great crew members. It demystified the region for me in a way."
The Plame scandal created such a furore in America that you might think there wasn't much that a movie could add. However, lead actress Watts, 41, disagrees: "Although I was familiar with the story at the time, it was told in such a fragmented way by the media that it was only through the movie that I discovered the story."
Watts had a second child with her partner, the actor Liev Schreiber, on December 13, 2008, and she was sent the script two weeks after the birth. Shooting began not long after, when Watts says she was still in a maternal state, but Liman sent her straight to a boot camp in which she had to endure some of the tough training undergone by CIA agents.
She jokes that not many women can claim to be packing guns and feeding their baby at the same time.
Equally tough was her attempt to get to know the real Plame.
"When I knew it would be my role, I hunted her down and did research and tried to get to know her, which takes time because she operates in a covert place even today and lots of information she has is still classified. I wanted her to tell me those facts, but she is not in a legal position to give out that information."
Watts was continually amazed by the former CIA operative: "We had lots of dinners and e-mail exchanges, and I found it inspiring how she dealt with the massive changes in her life. A fiercely private woman - not only because of her job but how she dealt with her family and friends - she was betrayed, but also she was betraying others. The repercussion of the revelations was great on others who knew her, how she dealt with her family and the union between her and Joe survived and went forward. She fought for integrity and so to speak to her was intriguing."
The 45-year-old director Liman hopes the movie will mark a new stage in his career. "I've made Swingers, Go and The Bourne Identity, but this is what I've been trying to do my whole career, which is to try to come up with films both entertaining and meaningful, and I've not succeeded so well in the past.
"The Bourne Identity was supposed to be a retelling of the Iran-Contra scandal, and Chris Cooper was playing the Oliver North role, but no one got it. I was on The OC, and I wanted to get teens in America discussing and dealing with serious issues and Fox said, 'no you're not'. Fair Game is the type of movie that I've always wanted to make."
The interest in political issues stems from his father. "Clearly, my father's influence on me is profound," he reveals. "He died in 1997 and he ran the investigation into the Iran-Contra affair, which was when Ronald Reagan abused the power of the White House. My father became a national figure because of it. Now the Valerie Plame affair is the next time the White House abused power to that extent, so I feel a connection to my father now that I've done an investigation into abuse by the White House.
"I want to make a film about the 1971 Attica Prison uprising, and my father actually ran the investigation into that too. I wrote a report that won a National Book Award, and I'm hoping to turn that report into a film. I wouldn't do that next, though - next I would like to do a film that maybe just lets people forget about the problems of the world for a moment."
Liman has proved very adept at making popcorn entertainment, and with The Bourne Identity, it's arguable that he changed the way action films were made. Yet, he says, it was a failed ambition that spurred him to work with Matt Damon on creating that inimitable hero: "It's surreal because when I made The Bourne Identity, what I really wanted was to be hired to do a Bond film, but the producers wouldn't hire me. They said I was too much of an independent thinker, and they had a specific formula. They didn't want it to be reinvented. Then the producers went and changed the formula to copy The Bourne Identity, so I'm just amused by it. That's my main coping mechanism, to try to find the good or amusement in everything."