Family ties make ‘Fair Game’ a personal endeavor

When filmmaker Doug Liman was growing up in New York, he was fascinated by the mythic world of spies like James Bond. Yet, he also was tantalized by glimpses of the real world of espionage offered by his late father, Arthur L. Liman, the famed litigator who grilled Oliver North on behalf of Congress during the Iran-Contra investigation of the Reagan administration.

“It was a top secret investigation into the National Security Agency,” Liman recalls. "[I was] seeing all the mechanics of how classified information worked. It was all real, and loitering around my dad and picking up whatever crumbs fell. … This was so much more interesting than any James Bond film I’d ever seen.”

Liman went on to make his mark on the spy movie genre by directing “The Bourne Identity” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” Now, he’s made the kind of espionage film his father might recognize, the true-to-life “Fair Game,” which will debut Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival.

Starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, “Fair Game” is part spy thriller, part domestic drama, and tells the story of Valerie Plame, played by Watts, the undercover CIA operative whose name was leaked to the media by the Bush White House in an effort to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson (Penn). Wilson had publicly accused the administration of misrepresenting evidence of an Iraqi nuclear arms program in the run-up to the Iraq war. The administration retaliated by “outing” his wife as a CIA operative, ruining her career and, some argued, violating a law that forbids exposing CIA agents on the grounds it jeopardizes the lives of field agents.

For many, Plame’s personal story was nearly lost amid the ensuing scandal, including a criminal investigation into the leak by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, the saga of Judith Miller ( the New York Times reporter who was jailed for refusing to name a source) and the eventual trial and conviction of “Scooter” Libby, a top aide to then- Vice President Dick Cheney.

The movie explores Plame’s career as a deep cover spy with no visible connections to the United States government. When the administration exposed her, she was running agents in the CIA’s counterproliferation division in a determined hunt for rogue nuclear weapons. But it also examines her marriage to Wilson, a more overtly political type from the world of international diplomacy, and the strains that develop when her covert life clashes with his agenda.

“When she signed up for the CIA, she signed up for a life of anonymity, like never being able to take credit for what she may have accomplished,” explains Liman on the phone from New York a few days before the start of Cannes. “She married a man who is pretty widely known as a loudmouth.... This is real life. Add to that what happens when the loudmouth gets the undercover exposed. How does the marriage deal with that?” Wilson wanted to fight the Bush administration publicly, while Plame’s first instinct was to retreat farther into the shadows. “In order for him to get what he wanted, she would have to lose and viceversa. This is a perfect set up for a drama.”

Liman pushed the politics of the events into the background. There is very little discussion of the Fitzgerald investigation, and much of the activity of the Bush White House officials is presented in news clips. Given the reluctance of movie audiences to embrace movies about the Iraq war, that might be seen as a pragmatic choice, but Liman said there are good artistic reasons to leave the political debate largely off screen. He said he was influenced by two important figures: his father and Steven Spielberg.

Liman recalls watching the Iran-Contra hearings on TV, which “ran all summer like a miniseries. My father became a very public figure who everybody recognized, but nobody cared about what Reagan had or had not done.

“I also took my lesson from Steven Spielberg in Jaws. During the filming of ‘Jaws,’ the shark malfunctioned and the end result was that Spielberg couldn’t show the shark. That turned out to be the single best thing that happened to that movie. The shark is a lot scarier when you see less of it. I decided to apply that approach to the White House.”

“Fair Game” had its origins in 2006 when producer Janet Zucker was in Washington lobbying for stem-cell research and some mutual friends introduced her to Plame. “They invited Valerie over and we stayed up all night long talking,” Zucker recalls. “We bonded as professional women, and we also bonded as women who had kind of gone to battle over something we thought was important. In my case, it was my daughter’s diabetes,” Zucker says. She went on to produce the film with her husband, Jerry Zucker, best known as the director of “Ghost” and one of the troika behind the “Airplane” comedies.

Still, it took close to a year for the Zuckers to persuade the Wilsons to make a movie about their ordeal. Part of the challenge was overcoming Plame’s secrecy. Not only did she refuse to discuss anything that was classified, but “when she’s with other people, she’s so good at turning the conversation to you,” Jerry Zucker says. “She’s great at bringing people out.”

The Zuckers recall taking Plame to a Hollywood dinner party, where she chatted up the table. “By the end of the evening, she had found out about everyone there, but no one knew anything about her,” Janet Zucker says.

They ultimately brought in British screenwriting brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth to write the script. They set up the film at Warner Bros. under the aegis of producer Akiva Goldsman.

The Butterworths met the Wilsons in 2007, during the Libby trial. “It was the eye of the hurricane,” Jez Butterworth recalls. “The house was the battlefield for the previous three years. It was incredibly electric.”

Liman heard about the film from the Butterworths, who’d done an uncredited polish on “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” and called the Zuckers to make a case for directing. They wanted a more political movie. “I will never forget my first meeting with Janet and Jerry Zucker. I basically sounded like a Republican approaching this material,” Liman says.

According to the director, Janet Zucker was particularly impassioned about the behavior of the Bush administration. “Janet would say, ‘This is important. People should care about this.’ It was actually very helpful to have this incredibly strong-willed, liberal-minded producer in the mix because it put me in a very reactionary mood, which ultimately drove the politics out of the movie.”

But in making it a more personal story, Liman ran up against Plame’s reluctance to discuss her job.

The filmmakers also got little help from Plame’s memoir, also called “Fair Game,” published in 2007. The CIA so heavily redacted the pre-publication manuscript that Plame and her publisher sued, and lost. The resulting book had almost nothing about Plame’s undercover activities.

“I’m a filmmaker. I’m used to manipulating people. That’s one of the main criteria of making it as a director in Hollywood,” Liman says. “You have to be a con artist … Valerie was a stone wall. I would be so frustrated, and Janet Zucker would say, ‘What do you expect? She’s a trained spy.’”

Liman and the Butterworths wound up interviewing other ex-spies and scouring published sources to flesh out day-to-day life in the CIA. Although names and places have been changed to protect people, events in the movie follow the facts, Liman says.

Warner Bros. ultimately put the “Fair Game” into turnaround, and the $22-million film ended up being financed by River Road entertainment in conjunction with Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dahbi FZ. Summit Entertainment has stepped in to distribute the film in the U.S. later this year.

The filmmakers shot in the U.S., Jordan, Egypt and Kuala Lumpur, with Liman serving as his own cinematographer. Against the express wishes of the production team, Liman also went with a tiny crew to shoot exteriors in Baghdad for two days.

“I felt it was important that I go and see with my own eyes,” Liman says. Security was intense, and everybody on his tiny production crew wore bulletproof vests.

“There were something like 36 attacks the day before we got there, so we would get to a location and the head of our security detail would tell us how long we could be there. I think the longest we were able to stay in one place was 20 minutes,” Liman says. “They made it very clear to you that you’re this giant juicy target.”

Liman won’t go so far as to say “Fair Game” is his most personal film, but he does say it’s the film that makes him feel closest to his father, who died in 1997. “This is the movie he would have been most proud of me for making.”