The full title names of the movie's source books are "Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House" (2007) by Valerie Plame Wilson [aka Valerie Plame] and "The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity: A Diplomat's Memoir" (2004) by Joseph Wilson [aka Joe Wilson].
In late 2001, Valerie Plame Wilson was juggling two lives: Her personal life as the wife of retired ambassador Joe Wilson [Joseph Wilson] and the 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 Plame Wilson was tasked with infiltrating Saddam Hussein's weapons programs at a crucial moment in the run-up to the Iraq war. Producer Jerry Zucker' said: "Certainly it was a fascinating story from a political point of view. 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."
A very distinctive ornamental mask carving can be seen on the kitchen door frame next to Joe Wilson (Joseph Wilson) as he leans against it during an argument with Valerie Plame (Valerie Plame Wilson). It is visible immediately after Plame's "Where does all this get us?" line. This is a Barong mask. The Barong is a Balinese mythological hero, the king of spirits, fighting the eternal battle against evil. This mask can be seen again as Wilson watches the TV news report of the 'Scooter Libby' conviction.
In Jordan, with immense cooperation from that country's military, director Doug Liman was able to film a scene that involved a Black Hawk helicopter flying at extremely low altitude along it's capital city Amman's main boulevard.
The film features an expansive ensemble of distinguished character actors, including actor and playwright Sam Shepard in the role of Valerie's father, a retired air force lieutenant colonel; Bruce McGill as Jim Pavitt, deputy director of the CIA; and David Andrews as Scooter Libby (aka Lewis Libby).
The film is based on two source books: "The Politics of Truth"(2004) by Joseph Wilson and "Fair Game" (2007) by Valerie Plame Wilson. The movie was made and released about six years after the first book and about three years after the second book. Both source books were written by two spouses of a married couple of Mr and Mrs Wilson who are portrayed in this film by actor Sean Penn and actress Naomi Watts respectively.
Security, intelligence, and government agencies featured and/or referenced in the film included the CIA and its Internal Security, the White House, Mossad, The Farm, the Pentagon, the Bush Administration, and the US and British Governments.
The Wilson's story [Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson] had played out very publicly. Dispatched by the US government to Niger to confirm reports of a large purchase of uranium by the Iraqi government, Joe Wilson [Joseph 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 Wilson' (qv'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. Producer Janet Zucker said: "You couldn't have made this up." After learning more about the Wilsons, the producers of this film realized the story was much deeper and richer than the headlines. The Wilsons 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 Wilson [Joseph Wilson] fired back with both barrels, alleging that the revelation was criminal act. But after a lifetime in the shadows, Valerie Plame Wilson was reluctant to go public. Producer Jerry Zucker said: "Here was a woman who led a secret life for a long time. 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."
In order to tell this complex story in a two-hour movie, the Butterworths - screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth - changed some names and created composite characters. Producer Jerry Zucker said: "For example, Dr Hassan and her physicist brother, who in the film provide Valerie [Valerie Plame Wilson] with information on the Iraqi nuclear arms program, are fictional characters. 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."
Director Doug Liman learned Valerie Plame Wilson was what is known as a non-official covert operative or NOC. Liman said: "That made the whole situation unbelievably intriguing. 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. 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."
Aware that the brother screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth knew actress Naomi Watts, director Doug Liman asked the Butterworths to send her the script. Jez Butterworth recalled: "I asked her to read the first ten pages and see what she thought. Naomi phoned me right away. She said she read the entire screenplay in one sitting. She loved it." Watts, who had just given birth to her second child, has commented she wasn't really in a script reading mode. She said: "However I knew the quality of Jez's work and I knew the story of Valerie Plame [Valerie Plame Wilson]. What I love about this story is that the drama of the marriage really anchors the politics. The unraveling and re-building of their marriage keeps it emotional and gives the audience something more than history to connect with."
A meeting was quickly arranged between Naomi Watts and director Doug Liman after she had read the script. Liman said: "From our first meeting, Naomi showed unwavering commitment to the film. She became my partner every inch of the way, rolling up her sleeves, and working long, long days in difficult conditions. We shot in five different countries under conditions that a star of her stature would never normally endure. And through all of this, she was able to deliver what may be the finest performance I have ever recorded on film." Watts was equally impressed by Liman's determination to present the unvarnished truth of the story. Watts said: "Doug has a passion that is blinding. I knew he had the courage to tell this story. The things that he did to tell this story were at times mad, like going to Iraq and doing all of the camera work himself. He would never accept no. We didn't always have permits. This is a guy who'd rather be arrested than compromise his film."
Actress Naomi Watts offered to send the screenplay to actor Sean Penn to see if he was interested in playing Joe Wilson [Joseph Wilson]. Director Doug Liman and the producers jumped at her suggestion. Watts said: "I knew this was right up his alley. He has the same kind of passion as Joe Wilson. He commits 7,000 percent." After meeting with Liman, Penn agreed to star in the film. Liman said: "Of course, Sean Penn was everyone's first choice for Joe. Sean is the greatest actor working today. In my opinion, he's the greatest actor of his generation. That's how I felt going into the film, and Sean exceeded those incredibly high expectations. Watching his process was like 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'. He spent time with Joe Wilson and just absorbed him. He succeeded in becoming him. It was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever witnessed."
Actress Naomi Watts agreed that co-star actor Sean Penn's transformation was uncanny, but after making two previous films with the two-time Oscar winner, 21 Grams (2003) and The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), she expected nothing less. Watts said: "That's who he is. There's nothing like acting in a scene with him. You feel like you are a Toyota that suddenly starts driving like a Porsche. It's an easy, fast ride with him."
The real Valerie Plame Wilson was awed by the physical and emotional authenticity of the performances. It was, she said, as if she was confronting doppelgangers of herself and her husband. She also said: "Joe [(Joseph Wilson] and I were absolutely thrilled with the cast and the crew. I showed my son a photograph that was taken of me and Naomi [Naomi Watts] on set. He looked at it and said, 'Mum, isn't it strange to find you have a twin at 45?'."
Valerie Plame Wilson and star Naomi Watts didn't actually meet until after filming began, but they spent many hours speaking by telephone and e-mail as the actress prepped for her role. Watts said: "I decided to really focus on getting into her mindset. I wanted to know all about her personal life, how she juggled being a wife, a mother and a career woman operating in a man's world. I wanted to know what it was like keeping secrets from pretty much everyone she knew. I hunkered down and really spent time researching things like her speech, her family and her charm."
Joseph Wilson was flattered and excited to be played by Sean Penn'. Wilson said: "Being portrayed by someone like Sean is something I never would have expected. He's such a consummate actor. We spent a week joined at the hip, and he really does get into your skin."
Star Naomi Watts believes that the personal struggle of the Wilsons (Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson) would touch audiences as much as it did her. Watts said: "I hope that Valerie and Joe's story will move people. It's a testament to them both that their marriage survived despite the level of scrutiny they were put under."
"Every director says he couldn't have made the film without his cast and crew," said director Doug Liman, and continued: "But it doesn't make it any less true in this case. I could not have made this film without this extraordinary cast and my incredible, gifted, committed and talented crew. This is not a great climate in which to make a serious, ambitious film that is being produced on a very small budget. But everyone involved gladly cut their fees. Everyone's willingness to do whatever it took to get the film made was nothing short of astonishing."
Production on the film began in April 2009, shooting on location in the USA in Washington, DC., New York City, and on Long Island at the Marshall Field Estate, and in Westchester County in New York State.
In Cairo in Egypt, scenes scheduled to be shot at the city's university had to be postponed and then rescheduled because they coincided with the day that President Barack Obama gave his famous speech at Cairo University addressing the Muslim world.
Filming in the Republic of Iraq presented director Doug Liman with the biggest challenge of the production. He said: "We were the first American film company ever to shoot a non-documentary feature in Baghdad [the capital city of Iraq]. It was nerve-wracking, but working in such a volatile, turbulent location was essential to the nature of the film." The director and a production executive flew to Baghdad for twenty-four hours. There they were met by Iraqi filmmaker Oday Al-Rashed [Oday Rasheed] and a security detail armed with automatic rifles. Wearing bullet proof vests, Liman and Al-Rashed filmed at the former Saddam Hussein International Airport', on bridges crossing the Tigris river, at an abandoned mosque and at several buildings that had been bombarded by US missiles. "No matter where we were, there was never a margin of error," he says. "I had to get the scene we were shooting on that particular day because if I didn't, tomorrow would be too late. Tomorrow we'd be in a different country. We had no Plan B except that that the movie wouldn't be as good."
In the USA, the filmmakers took up residence in a sprawling former IBM office complex in White Plains, New York, that had been transformed into the offices of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) by production designer Jess Gonchor. Director Doug Liman said: "I decided to go even further with realism than I did with The Bourne Identity (2002). In this film, there would be no super-secret gadgets or satellites that can see through walls or anything like that. We've all been in government offices. We know the technology there is anything but cutting edge. The Bourne Identity exaggerated things, but here I was one hundred percent accurate."
Director Doug Liman borrowed one of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency)'s criteria for intelligence gathering to ensure authenticity for the film. Liman said: "Every detail of what we filmed was confirmed by at least two sources, even something as small as the floor plan of Valerie [Valerie Plame Wilson]'s office. This was especially important as our subject was CIA covert operations."
Valerie Plame Wilson herself, consistent with her sworn secrecy agreement with CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), was able to provide useful information to the filmmakers and actors and spent several weeks on set during the shoot. She said: "Most of the time, when I see a film about the CIA, I find what I'm watching has little to do with reality. In this film, everything is just as it is in real life, including what's appearing on computer screens and the maps hanging on the walls. [Director] Doug Liman and everyone around him were so concerned with making everything in the film as accurate as possible."
The film's star and leading actress Naomi Watts trained with intelligence and special military operatives that replicated the gruelling training regime CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) operatives undergo at Camp Peary, the CIA facility know as "the Farm", the latter of which nick-name of which is mentioned during the movie.
The father of the film's director Doug Liman, Arthur Liman, was counsel for the United States of America Senate during the Iran-Contra hearings. Director Doug Liman said he thought frequently during the production of a remark by Justice Louis Brandeis [Louis D. Brandeis] that his father often quoted, which was: "-'Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.' I went into this film very much with idea of truth in mind. I felt my father's presence on the set every day in each aspect of development and creativity down to the smallest detail. I wanted everything to be completely accurate. Liman added: "What I'd like people to take away from Fair Game (2010), is a feeling of hope. I want the audience to love and respect Valerie and Joe [Valerie Plame Wilson and Joseph Wilson] as much as I do."
The film was entered and selected to screen in competition for the prestigious Palme d'Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 which was won by Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Thai film Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (2010) ["Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"].
The film's screenwriters, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, saw the potential cinematic gold in the characters and conflict in the story, recognizing that what happened to the Wilsons, Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson, after the latter was "outed" struck at the very heart of their family and their marriage. Jez Butterworth said: "I'm not sure I know how to write political scenes even though my political sympathies were with the Wilsons. But characters I know."
When the film's screenwriters the Butterworths, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, signed on to write the screenplay, they found themselves facing restrictions unlike any they had ever encountered before. Even Valerie Plame Wilson's unpublished source memoir "Fair Game" was off limits to them until the CIA finished vetting it. Producer Janet Zucker said: "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. As we began developing the project, we discovered that conveying what happened to Valerie Plame [Valerie Plame Wilson] and Joe Wilson [Joseph 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 co-operation as a consultant on the movie, she could not reveal any information the government still considered to be secret. The screen-writers were left with no recourse but to conduct research on their own. Jez Butterworth said: "We did an immense amount. First about the US government and the CIA, and then about the Wilsons themselves."
The movie features numerous acronyms in its dialogue and screenplay. These include: DC, IA, CIA, INR, NSC, DOI, CPD, DOE, CNN, OVP, DFU, NBC, MIT, CBS, DIA, WMD, NOCs, B-52s, IAEA, JTFI, MSNBC, COGEMA, and WINPAC.
Co-screenwriter John-Henry Butterworth' said: "The research period was terrifically exciting. It was all very cloak and dagger. People were reluctant to talk about Valerie [Valerie Plame Wilson] 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", first-hand accounts were crucial to getting the story right. Co-screenwriter John-Henry Butterworth' said: "The case was covered in the press like a football match. 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. 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 screenwriter brothers, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, interviewed scores of people, including former intelligence personnel, journalists, lawyers and congressmen. Along with producer Janet Zucker, they attended the trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby [Lewis Libby], the only government official to be charged in the Plame Case. Eventually, they were allowed to read Valerie Plame Wilson's memoir "Fair Game", but only after it had been released in a heavily redacted form by the CIA's Publications Review Board.
The more the Butterworths, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, dug, the more confident they were that this was a story in which the personal surmounted the political. Jez Butterworth said: "When we saw the Wilsons [Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson] 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. They were waging a battle for their lives."
Producer Bill Pohlad said: "I read the script and found it really compelling. At [production house] 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 [Valerie Plame Wilson and Joseph Wilson] 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 producer Bill Pohlad, who said: "But 'Fair Game' is not meant to be a purely historical document or political polemic. 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. 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."
Producer Bill Pohlad was confident director Doug Liman brought the perfect skill set to the project. Pohlad said: "Doug's background directing spy thrillers and his ability to pull off action were attractive. But we also knew Doug would able to translate what was going on within Joe and Valerie's [Valerie Plame Wilson and Joseph Wilson] 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."
Director Doug Liman was already a fan of the work of brother screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth. Liman said: "They had done some work for me on Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005). 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."
The lead central characters of the film and its source book authors were married couple Mr and Mrs Wilson - Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson. Previously, director Doug Liman had directed a film with a married couple title called Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005). Liman says the film felt like a continuation of his earlier fictional work. Liman said: "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."
Third major theatrical feature film entitled with a "Fair Game" title in twenty-five years. The first was the outback Australian thriller Fair Game (1986) and the second the American action thriller Fair Game (1995) starring Cindy Crawford and William Baldwin. During this quarter century period, there has also been Fair Game (2005), Fair Game (1988) (aka "Mamba" / "Fair Game"), as well as the tele-movie Fair Game (1994).
Even before meeting the Wilsons, Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson, director Doug Liman felt a strong connection with Joe and Valerie. Liman said: "My attraction has always been for characters, not action or politics. 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."
Director Doug Liman insisted he had no political agenda in making this picture. Liman said: "My priority was to stay on track and not get sucked into the politics of the story. 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."
From the start, director Doug Liman and the producers wanted Naomi Watts to play Valerie Plame Wilson. An actress of tremendous emotional range and an Academy Award nominee for her work opposite co-star Sean Penn in 21 Grams (2003), Watts embodied Valerie's combination of easygoing femininity and steely calm. Producer Bill Pohlad said: "Naomi was a natural for the role. The nature of Valerie's life was to be one character to her friends and someone else at her job. It's an amazing challenge for an actress."
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The film's closing epilogue states: "Scooter Libby [Lewis Libby] was convicted and sentenced to two and a half years in prison, and a [US] $250,000 fine. President Bush [George W. Bush] used his executive authority to commute the court's sentence. In 2006, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage admitted to being a source of the leak. Armitage learned of Valerie Plame [Valerie Plame Wilson]'s identity from a memo drafted at the request of the White House. Joe and Valerie [Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson] left Washington and found a new home in Santa Fe [in New Mexico, USA]. They live there today, with their children."