Does it matter to the Washington Post that the new Sean Penn movie Fair Game makes hash of the real history of Valarie Plame? Well, that depends on who you ask there. Back in August, Ann Hornaday excused the film’s truthiness away by focusing on, in her words, the “usuable past” it creates — in other words, a mythology that services the DC establishment liberalism that’s the bread and butter of the WaPo. Her flexibility with the film’s honesty began with the title, “Washington-set films may fudge facts, but good ones speak to larger truths.” It ended with the following paragraphs:
As long as dramatists seek to make protagonists out of mere humans — to reduce their tangled webs of contradictions, complexities and banalities to a set of single-minded motivations and fatal flaws — audiences will need to approach these narratives with a blend of sophistication and skepticism. But maybe the best way to understand these films isn’t as narrative at all, but an experience more akin to ritual. When religious pilgrims travel to the sacred sites of the Holy Land, for example, the locations they visit often aren’t the literal places where a biblical figure was born or baptized. Instead, they’re the sites that, through centuries of use and shared meaning, have become infused with a spiritual reality all their own.
Thus, the movies about Washington that get the right stuff right — or get some stuff wrong but in the right way — become their own form of consensus history. “Follow the money,” then, assumes its own totemic truth. [Even if no one actually uttered those words during Watergate — Ed] Ratified through repeated viewings in theaters, on Netflix and beyond, these films become a mutual exercise in creating a usable past. We watch them to be entertained, surely, and maybe educated. But we keep watching them in order to remember.
To his credit, whoever the unnamed op-ed writer at the Post was yesterday, he was having none of that concept:
The movie portrays Mr. Wilson as a whistle-blower who debunked a Bush administration claim that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from the African country of Niger. In fact, an investigation by the Senate intelligence committee found that Mr. Wilson’s reporting did not affect the intelligence community’s view on the matter, and an official British investigation found that President George W. Bush’s statement in a State of the Union address that Britain believed that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger was well-founded.
“Fair Game” also resells the couple’s story that Ms. Plame’s exposure was the result of a White House conspiracy. A lengthy and wasteful investigation by a special prosecutor found no such conspiracy – but it did confirm that the prime source of a newspaper column identifying Ms. Plame was a State Department official, not a White House political operative.
Hollywood has a habit of making movies about historical events without regard for the truth; “Fair Game” is just one more example. But the film’s reception illustrates a more troubling trend of political debates in Washington in which established facts are willfully ignored. Mr. Wilson claimed that he had proved that Mr. Bush deliberately twisted the truth about Iraq, and he was eagerly embraced by those who insist the former president lied the country into a war. Though it was long ago established that Mr. Wilson himself was not telling the truth – not about his mission to Niger and not about his wife – the myth endures. We’ll join the former president in hoping that future historians get it right.
Update: Much more at the Belmont Club.