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In Valerie Plame's 'Blowback,' Reality Grittier than Fiction

  • Penelope Poulou

The 2010 drama "Fair Game," starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, catapulted the 2003 leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame onto the silver screen.

Plame's life took an unexpected turn after having her cover blown by Bush administration officials, shortly after her husband, former U.S. diplomat Joe Wilson, refuted government claims that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was trying to buy enriched uranium from Niger.

Ten years after the scandal, Plame has returned to the world of espionage — this time as a novelist.

In a pop-cultural medium where female agents are often stereotyped as femme fatales, Plame says Vanessa Pierson, the main character of her new novel, "Blowback," is a woman trying to balance personal life with career, very much like herself.

“They are either over sexualized, or [there is] heavy reliance on physicality, or they are victims," says Plame. "Or basically I think of them as paper dolls.”

Plame cites Angelina Jolie's role in "Salt" as an example.

“Angelina Jolie looks so beautiful that she looks fabulous doing anything," she says. "But I cannot say that it has anything whatsoever to do with reality.”

More recently, however, female spy characters have broken that mold and captivated audiences with the likes of CIA operative Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, as she hunts down Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty."

"I'm all for courageous and strong women that persevere against great odds, but it really was a team effort of dozens of CIA officers over an extended period of time that led to finding Osama bin Laden," says Plame.

But products of popular culture, she adds, have sometimes successfully portrayed real life aspects of modern espionage.

"The government has been in bed with the entire telecommunications industry since the 1940s," she says. "They have infected everything. They get into your bank statements, computer files, email, listen to your phone calls."

The 15-year-old drama "Enemy of the State," in which the protagonist, played by Will Smith, has his life upended by sophisticated government surveillance techniques and whistleblowing is a good example, and, Plame says, eerily close to recent revelations of the NSA's electronic surveillance.

“There is a dynamic and a balance, of course, between security on one hand and privacy on the other," she says. "But I worry about what an overzealous prosecutor or... heaven forbid, if there is a part of the government that moved toward tyranny. [It would be] very dangerous because information is power and we now know how deep and how pervasive — I mean, this is no surprise — the NSA has gone in order to keep us safe.”

Blowback is Plame's first in a series of novels throwing light on the shadowy life of a female spy.
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