Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Washington Post columnist and Morning Joe regular David Ignatius also finds time to write novels, including Body of Lies which was made into a film directed by Ridley Scott that starred Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio. His latest, The Quantum Spy, focuses on the race between the U.S. and China to develop a quantum computer, one capable of breaking codes millions of times faster than conventional computers. Ignatius has done his homework, yet makes the details about quantum computing understandable. In reality, while some progress has been made towards developing this super smart computer, the research is still in its infancy. Much is at stake. The country that manages to develop the first quantum computer will have an edge and it’s a battle that the CIA does not want to lose. That often means using methods that are unethical and at times illegal.
John Vandel, the CIA agent leading the operation, lacks a moral compass, whether dealing with the Chinese, the American scientists, or his own agents. He stays focused on the end game. Nothing else matters, even a bond that was forged on the battlefield. In 2005, Vandel was at the CIA station in Baghdad when the Green Zone sustained a rocket attack. Lieutenant Harris Chang, a patriot from Flagstaff, Arizona, ended up saving Vandel’s life. Seeing something in Chang, Vandel recruits him for the CIA and, for a while, the two enjoy a close working relationship. Yet that bond begins to fray when Vandel suspects, despite Chang’s protestations, that the young man has been seduced by the Chinese. Chang discovers, much to his dismay, that he may be an American, but to many he will first be Chinese and, therefore, suspected of betraying his country. Needless to say, the racist attitude on the part of Vandel and others in the CIA do not speak well of the agency Ignatius presents.
Meanwhile, there’s a mole in the CIA, someone feeding information to the Chinese. Chang is enlisted to tease out the mole, an operation that will test his loyalties, to both his heritage and his country.
Ignatius, who knows how to craft a page turner, has spent many years covering the CIA and other agencies. When does fiction cross over to real life? Perhaps more often than we know.
In 2002, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson was sent to the the African nation of Niger to assess whether Iraq was buying uranium ore to build nuclear weapons. Wilson’s investigation found no such evidence, but in the 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Four months after, the U.S. invaded Iraq, basing that military operation on the erroneous information that Saddam had “weapons of mass destruction.” Wilson wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times titled, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” basically accusing the Bush Administration of lying to justify the war.
Retaliation against Wilson zeroed in on his wife, Valerie Plame, a career CIA operative whose identity was leaked to the press by members of the Bush Administration and first published in the Washington Post by conservative columnist Robert Novak. Plame’s outing effectively ended her career and also placed any assets she had worked with in danger. Although Plame did not send her husband to Niger, she also was held responsible for that decision, bringing about charges of nepotism.
Hannah Yelland and Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman
Jacqueline E. Lawton’s aptly titled Intelligence, now playing at Arena Stage, purports to tell Plame’s story. First commissioned in 2015 as part of Arena’s Power Play initiative, Lawton’s work is well-timed. Intelligence leaks are in the news, but as Intelligence shows, those leaks are not new. In a tight and tense 90-minutes, Intelligence imagines Plame’s double life – on one hand, an undercover CIA operative, and on the other, a wife to Wilson and mother to their three-year old twins.
In Playwright’s Notes included in the program, Lawton said that she writes “out of a deep frustration for the lack of strong, complex and engaging roles for women in the American theater.” She was drawn to Plame’s story about a woman “fighting to ensure the national security of the United States.” Intelligence is directed by Daniella Topol, artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York.
In Arena’s Kogod Cradle, Misha Kachman’s set design, dominated by dark gray moveable walls, creates the perfect backdrop for clandestine activities. On the left side of the stage, couches and a coffee table represent the more intimate and comfortable Wilson/Plame living room. The columns also work as screens where video scenes from 9/11 are played, along with snippets of speeches made by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Ethan Hova, Nora Achrati, and Hannah Yelland
Working for the CIA’s counter-proliferation division, Plame (a passionate performance by Hannah Yelland, who also resembles Plame) is investigating whether Iraq is amassing weapons. The importance of her mission cannot be understated. Not only will her findings produce valuable evidence that may or may not result in the U.S. attacking Iraq, but any assets who provide that information might be targeted for death. Intelligence is a fictionalized account of what might have transpired as Plame went about her duties.
Dr. Malik Nazari (a searing performance by Ethan Hova), representing one of Plame’s assets, is an Iraqi who once tested chemical weapons for Saddam’s regime. Often the most unpleasant part of a CIA agent’s job is pressuring, even blackmailing, those who are innocent. Leyla Nazari (Nora Achrati) Malik’s niece, is a dress designer who makes frequent trips to Jordan. Plame coming to Leyla’s shop, ostensibly to pick up a scarf, threatens to turn over information about those trips to the government unless Leyla convinces her uncle to meet with her.
Nazari agrees to the meeting, in the coffee shop he now runs. Now out of Iraq, he’s still wracked with guilt over testing chemical weapons on prisoners and others who were unable to defend themselves. He agrees to go back to Iraq to gather information, not for Plame or the U.S., but for his people, he tells her. Plame promises to go with him to Iraq, but is ordered not to do so by her supervisor, Elaine Matthews (Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman). That won’t be the only promise Plame is forced to break. After she’s outed, she’s barred from the CIA (on her next visit, she’s given a visitor pass), and is unable to contact or protect Nazari or Leyla.
Hannah Yelland and Lawrence Redmond
Plame’s situation takes a toll on her at home, too. While her husband (Lawrence Redmond) is depicted here as being less than supportive about her job, complaining when she has to work late or travel (she’s a CIA operative!), he also doesn’t stop to think about what effect his Times column might have on her career. Seeing her name in print in Novak’s story, Plame lashes out at him, pointing out that he has placed her and the children in danger. (In real life, Plame and Wilson eventually relocated from Washington, D.C. to New Mexico, after receiving death threats.)
Never before has gathering intelligence been more important. And never before have these dedicated people who place their lives on the line every day to perform these duties come under such unrelenting attack. Intelligence is a cautionary tale that we have to do better, recruiting the best and brightest for these challenging assignments and then giving them the tools and the support they need to succeed in their missions to keep America safe.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Intelligence Written by Jacqueline E. Lawton Directed by Daniella Topol Kogod Cradle Arena Stage Extended through April 9, 2017
Oliver Stone’s films are not just entertainment; they are political statements. His new film, Snowden, focuses on the former CIA employee and government contractor who leaked information about widespread global surveillance by the U.S. government. The film is a sympathetic portrait of a whistleblower. And while many believe that Edward Snowden should face prosecution, others have lauded his actions. In June, 2015, President Obama signed the USA Freedom Act, which sets some limits on what telecommunication data intelligence agencies may collect on U.S. citizens, a law that might not have happened, some say, without Snowden’s disclosures.
Snowden, viewed in the closing moments of the movie, seems to be taking advantage of any positive feelings that may result from Stone’s film. As Barack Obama heads into the final months of his administration, a time when many presidents issue pardons, Snowden is asking for one. In statements made to The Guardian, the British newspaper that first broke the story, Snowden called what he did “vital,” and “moral.” Snowden, who first fled to Hong Kong, has been living in Moscow. While White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said that Snowden would face charges if he returned, former Attorney General Eric Holder in May said that Snowden had performed a “public service” by sparking a debate about surveillance. Stone’s film seems perfectly timed to continue that conversation.
While Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been acting since he was a child and has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, he will be a new discovery to many theater goers who will turn out to see him as Snowden. That low profile allows him to disappear into the role. He bears a physical resemblance to the title character, but it’s his performance that serves as the core of the film. He allows us to see his transformation, from an ardent patriot who believes the U.S. is the greatest country in the world (he’s asked that question in numerous polygraph tests along the way), to a disillusioned patriot who believes that post-9/11 the country has gone too far, sweeping up “metadata” on its citizens. At one point, he resigns from the CIA, so concerned about what he sees happening. But before too long, he’s back in and what he learns the second time around leads him to take action.
Snowden was a high school drop out who never graduated from college. (He earned a GED and took classes at a community college.) After 9/11, he enlisted in the Army, hoping to become Special Forces. A broken leg revealed more serious health problems and he was discharged. Looking for another way to serve his country, he applied to the CIA. When agency heavyweight Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) asks Snowden why he wants to join the CIA, he responds that it would be cool to have such a high security clearance. O’Brian is nonplussed by the answer, but he recognizes Snowden’s talents and hires him. The two become close but their relationship will be tested again and again.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley
Shailene Woodley plays Snowden’s long-suffering girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Although they meet on a site called Geek-Mate, Lindsay is a photographer, not a techie. She’s also liberal, while Snowden still defends the Bush Administration. His security clearance prevents him from sharing anything about his work with Lindsay. As he becomes aware of just how far surveillance has gone, his moves to protect their privacy – covering up the camera on her computer with tape, claiming that their home is being bugged – come across to her as extreme paranoia. Yet she remains loyal and follows him to Tokyo and Hawaii. (In the closing credits we learn that Lindsay has moved to Moscow to be with Snowden.)
Melissa Leo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Wilkinson, and Zachary Quinto
The film toggles back and forth between Poitras’ interview with Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room, and scenes from Snowden’s past while he was climbing the intelligence ladder. Melissa Leo plays Laura Poitras, who directed and produced Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary about Snowden and Zachary Quinto plays Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who interviewed Snowden with Poitras’ camera running. There’s a claustrophobic feel to those hotel scenes, the tension building as the authorities threaten to close in. Once the Guardian story appears (according to the film, the outcome was never assured with Greenwald pushing his London editor, Janine Gibson played by Joely Richardson, to get it done) the hotel is overrun with journalists. Snowden manages to escape, hiding out for days in rundown sections of the city, eventually making it to Moscow.
Stone hasn’t had a high profile film in years. Snowden should put him back on the map.
Snowden opens nationwide September 16, 2016. Photos Courtesy of Open Road Pictures