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.
The Quantum Spy
Top photos: Bigstock
Timing is everything, and Steven Spielberg’s The Post could not have come out at a more ideal time. While there are those who would attack the Washington Post and other news organizations with pejorative terms like “fake news,” the film dramatizes why our country needs a free and unfettered press. While the New York Times proclaims on its front page “All the news that’s fit to print,” the Washington Post doesn’t pull punches with its declaration that “Democracy dies in darkness.”
Risking everything to publish stories based on the purloined Pentagon Papers – the publisher, editors, and reporters could have been charged and jailed – the Washington Post claimed it’s rightful place as a national newspaper. Katharine Graham, who became publisher after her husband, Philip, committed suicide, allowed the paper to print, even though her board of directors warned that she could jeopardize the paper’s financial future. In making the decision to go ahead, Graham finally asserts her authority and makes the paper truly her own.
Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks
Coming on the heels of The Vietnam War, Ken Burns’ exhaustive series for PBS, the film underscores that four presidents, from Truman through Johnson, continually misled the public about U.S. operations in Vietnam. In fact, while the government insisted that the war was being won, behind the scenes those in charge had declared the war unwinnable. President Nixon, who didn’t want to be humiliated losing a war, kept up the deception.
The film opens in 1969, in the jungles of Vietnam. The war is still raging, claiming both American and Vietnamese lives. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a former Marine working as a military analyst at the Rand Corporation, is sent to Vietnam as an observer and sees firsthand that things are not going well. While flying back to Washington on a government plane, Ellsberg is asked for his opinion by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). If Ellsberg is surprised when McNamara agrees with his assessment, he’s even more surprised when McNamara faces the press after the flight and delivers an upbeat assessment that the war is being won.
Ellsburg, already disillusioned, makes the decision to photocopy 7,000 pages of confidential documents that reveal what the government has been hiding for more than four decades about the war. After failing to generate any interest from the members of Congress, Ellsberg, in 1971, contacts Neil Sheehan, who had been covering the war for the New York Times. Sheehan and his editors recognized the importance of the papers immediately. A team was put together, and for three months they holed up in a hotel, poring over the papers and deciding how best to tell the story.
Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee
The absence of Sheehan’s byline for several months does not go unnoticed by Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Hanks plays Bradlee as the quintessential newspaper man and a fierce competitor. Even though the Times was recognized as the only truly national newspaper in the country, and one whose journalistic credentials far outweighed the Post’s, Bradlee is not about to play second fiddle. He gives an intern $40 with instructions to hop a train to New York and attempt to find out what Sheehan is working on. While the intern doesn’t learn the whole story, he does see a mock-up of the next day’s Times with practically the entire front page blocked out for Sheehan’s story. Bradlee knows the Times has something big and braces for the scoop.
Meanwhile, Katharine Graham is about to face a group of bankers, a first step in her quest to take the paper public to raise much needed cash. Meryl Streep does what she does best: transforming herself into the character, in this case a middle-aged woman plagued with self doubt who is about to take her place on the national stage. Although Graham has rehearsed with Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), the Post’s chairman, she’s tongue-tied when before the bankers. Streep manages to capture Graham’s insecurities in subtle ways, with facial expressions and hand gestures. During the meeting, she actually seems to shrink in size. Despite her lackluster presentation, the offering succeeds and the company will have the cash it needs to go forward.
Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), David Cross (Howard Simons), John Rue (Gene Patterson), Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian), Jessie Mueller (Judith Martin), and Philip Casnoff (Chalmers Roberts)
On June 13, 1971, Bradlee’s fears are realized when the Times comes out with its first story about the Pentagon Papers, making the Post’s front page feature of Tricia Nixon’s wedding seem trivial. Three days later, however, the Nixon administration, citing national security, asks a federal court for an injunction preventing the Times from publishing any further stories. Although the injunction is granted, other newspapers jump in, trying to gain access to the documents.
One of the Post’s writers, Ben Bagdikian (a terrific Bob Odenkirk), has a hunch the papers came from Ellsberg, whom he once worked with at the Rand Corporation. Ellsberg, hiding out in a Boston motel, agrees to give the papers to Bagdikian. The reporter flies back to D.C., and the team gathers at Bradlee’s Georgetown home for some heavy reading.
The Times had more than three months to digest the papers. The Post’s team has far less time. The Herculean effort results in a story, but elation is short-lived when one of the newspaper’s attorneys says that the injunction could be a big problem if the Post’s source was also the Times’ source. If the paper defies the injunction and publishes, the risk would be great. Besides possible jail time for Graham, Bradlee, and others, board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), warns that the newspaper’s recent public offering could be in danger. This is the turning point for Kay Graham, and Streep handles this scene beautifully, allowing us first to see her hesitation, but then her determination to do the right thing.
Howard Simons (David Cross), Frederick “Fritz” Beebe (Tracy Letts), Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), Chalmers Roberts (Philip Casnoff), Paul Ignatius (Brent Langdon), Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon, seated).
The Post’s first story runs on June 18. Unlike in the Times’ case, the Justice Department’s request for an injunction is turned down by a federal judge in D.C. Before the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, several other newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the Chicago Sun-Times, also publish stories. In a 6-3 decision on June 30, the court reverses the injunction. In the decision, Justice Hugo Black writes: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham
Graham is transformed by the experience. Not only has she firmly grasped the reins as the newspaper’s publisher, but she understands that she cannot allow her responsibility to be affected by the personal friendships she once enjoyed with those in power. (After reading the Pentagon Papers, she confronts McNamara about his deception regarding the war, reminding him that her son is still in Vietnam fighting.)
Graham and Bradlee are now a team. While Graham expresses the hope that the battle is now behind them, we know that an even greater challenge is ahead, one that will bring down a president.
Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
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
Written by Jacqueline E. Lawton
Directed by Daniella Topol
Extended through April 9, 2017