She’s posed on the red carpet at Cannes in a flowing designer gown, at Deauville in a sleek black bustier and palazzo pants. She exchanges e-mails with Naomi Watts. Sean Penn hung out at her house. Not for nothing have they called Valerie Plame Wilson the Glamorous Spy.
And yet for years, she lived a life of secrecy that most of us would have trouble fathoming, unable to tell her best friends what she actually did for a living, or her own husband where she was flying off to in the middle of the night.
How do you go from one life to the other? Not very easily — still, she says, as she prepares for another round in the spotlight with the release Friday of "Fair Game," the movie based on her infamous 2003 "outing" as a CIA agent.
"I have found it a real challenge to be a public person," Plame Wilson said in an interview this week from Santa Fe, NM, where she now lives with her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, and their 10-year-old twins. "I was in a world where discretion was good. All of a sudden that changed overnight. That was not easy at all."
And to those critics who claim she’s thoroughly enjoyed profiting from that celebrity — red carpets, photo shoots, book and movie deals — Wilson has this to say, her voice hardening slightly: "Listen, I loved my job. If none of this had happened, I’d still be overseas working, happily, right now. But that wasn’t the card I was dealt."
"This," of course, is the now well-known story of how Plame’s CIA cover was blown, leaked by Bush administration officials in retribution, she and her husband claim, for her husband’s public accusation that the administration was twisting intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi nuclear threat and justify going to war.
An investigation led to the conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, then Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI. Bush later commuted Libby’s 30-month prison sentence.
As for Wilson, she wrote a book about the ordeal, as did her husband. It was published — some 10 percent of it literally blacked out because of redactions demanded by the CIA — in 2007, the same year the family moved to Santa Fe to build a new life. There, Plame Wilson enjoys being a mother, does part-time work for a scientific research group, the Santa Fe Institute, and also is collaborating on a spy novel — yes, about a female covert agent.
But back to the CIA leak investigation, which at the time seemed to divide the world into admirers and bitter critics of the Wilsons. With the movie coming out, and the critics sharpening their knives yet again, is the couple prepared?
"They’re using the same talking points again â€” it’s all part of a campaign to denigrate me and my husband," says Plame Wilson, who has long been particularly riled by the accusation that she was nothing more than a "glorified secretary" at the CIA, a point the movie makes sure to refute. "But we’ve learned to shut this out. We don’t want to waste energy on it. We’re really proud of this film and we stand by it. This is a story of power, and the abuse of power."
Certainly the film has plenty of star wattage. Plame Wilson is portrayed by Watts, and Penn plays the extroverted, showboating Joe. The film is directed by Doug Liman, who also directed "The Bourne Identity" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."
Liman, despite his action-film background, also has an interest in politics as the son of Arthur Liman, the lawyer who served as chief counsel for the Senate’s investigation of the Iran-contra affair. However important he found the CIA leak story, though, Liman says it was the characters of Valerie and Joe Wilson that motivated him to take on the film.
"If you just have an issue, then you should hold a rally," he said in an interview this week. "If you have great characters, then you should do a movie. I fell in love with the characters — this outspoken, colorful, flamboyant former ambassador, and this incredibly private secret agent. The neighbors must have thought, here was this ambassador with his trophy wife and their twins. But after getting her kids to school, she heads to Langley, where she is a clandestine operative in the area of weapons of mass destruction."
A key irony in making the film was that Plame Wilson could tell the filmmakers anything they wanted to know about the emotional side of her story — including details of her marriage. She just couldn’t tell them the facts. Every CIA agent signs a secrecy agreement when she joins. "It’s good for life," she notes pointedly.
So Liman and his team had to flesh out the story from material in the public domain, and from other CIA sources. Some people spoke to him, he says, "because they were outraged that she was being disparaged. Valerie could not defend herself, and that was used against her. Imagine — if you defend yourself, you go to jail."
One aspect of the film that some have criticized is how it portrays what happened to Plame’s "assets" overseas — the valuable contacts she had cultivated as a spy. A review in Variety called a plot twist involving an Iraqi scientist, a composite character, "apocryphal and manipulative," to which Plame Wilson quips: "I’m pretty sure they weren’t on the Intel distribution list, last time I checked!"
Asked what happened to "assets" like these, she answers carefully: "The CIA saw a damage report. I didn’t see it. But I can say that I know what happened to some of these assets. I know that some people were placed in severe jeopardy, and it ended badly."
On a less serious note, Plame Wilson allows that being portrayed onscreen by one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood isn’t all bad. "It could be worse," she jokes. But she has a hard time judging whether Watts "got" her as a character.
"You see yourself from the inside looking out," she says. "But my friends say Naomi got me. And I do think Sean got Joe — I wish they’d shown more of his sense of humor, but I guess it wasn’t about that."
As the movie heads for its opening weekend, Plame Wilson is happily home in Santa Fe — though she still has security concerns for her family, and "we’re aware of our security posture," she notes.
"We’ve rebuilt our lives here," she says. "We’re pursuing other things. We want this episode to be a chapter, not the whole book."
As for her 10-year-olds, Trevor and Samantha, she says, "This has been part of the wallpaper of their lives. But they’re healthy and happy." They’ve also seen the movie, and every so often, Trevor asks his mom: "What was your spy name?"
And as for that spy novel, Plame Wilson is working on it with local author Sarah Lovett. "I was always irked by how pop culture portrayed female CIA operatives," she says. "I wanted to write a thriller that was more realistic."
For one thing, the main character probably won’t have the sizzling looks of Angelina Jolie — or Jennifer Garner of "Alias," aka international spy Sydney Bristow.
"I used to look at ‘Alias,’" Plame Wilson says. "And I’d say to myself, ‘I wish I had THAT body!’"
Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame in a scene from "Fair Game." (AP Photo/Summit Entertainment, Ken Regan, FILE)