So I’m at this St. Patrick’s Day party over the weekend and I run into my scribe buddies Joe Gillis, Barton Fink, and Joe White. We’re up in the Hollywood Hills, practically smack dab under the “H” in the Hollywood Sign and, after “Danny Boy” and “Molly Malone” and all the other strange tribal ditties the Irish sing on such occasions, the talk turned, as it always does, to Hollywood.
The news is not good, but then the news for screenwriters is never good. They used to call Broadway the Fabulous Invalid, but these days that describes Tinseltown, ink-stained wretch division. Seven hundred channels and nothing on. Chris Rock movies. A film about unsolved serial-killer murders in San Francisco 40 years ago starring Jake Gyllenhaal that nobody wants to see, surprise, surprise. And yet 300 charges on.
So in light of the new market for flag-waving, jingoistic, feel-good motion pictures, here’s what I was going to pitch to Paramount this week:
Deep in the bowels of the CIA, a midlevel but ultra-super-glamorous agent (think Sharon Stone when she was hot, or think Amy Smart right now) marries a Graydon-Carteresque diplomat (think Sean Penn with lifts in his shoes and in need of a haircut), or better yet, think Graydon Carter in his post-Vanity Fair life and together they hatch a plot to… bring down the president of the United States!
The plot is simple but fiendishly clever: buttering up their Georgetown cocktail-party-circuit media contacts and easily manipulating the useful idiots in the State Department, the agent and her hubby uncork a daring sting operation that stretches from Langley to Niger to the State of the Union Address. The beautiful, sexy, super-hot agent gets her B-team retired diplomat/hubby sent to Africa, ostensibly on the orders of the vice president but really not, then has him write an op-ed piece in New York Times contradicting the president’s assertion about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, or some such. (I’m still working out the details.) The former diplomat — or maybe it’s the agent herself — deliberately outs his own wife to a gossipy State Department mole, who then blast-faxes it all over Washington and then — this is clever part — blames it on the administration!
The diplomat and spy cry foul, claim their lives are in danger and pose for Vanity Fair. The Times demands a special prosecutor. Investigations ensue, lawsuits fly, and the elected government teeters on the brink. You might think a halfway competent administration would point out a) she was working at Langley; b) a child or a newspaper reporter could have penetrated her ludicrously unbelievable “cover story” as an “energy analyst” for the nonexistent company, Brewster, Jennings & Associates; c) the diplomat’s op-ed and subsequent book was an uncalled-for tissue of lies but — and here’s the willing suspension of disbelief part — the tongue-tied president and his inner circle of cronies prove absolutely impotent in the face of this assault!
It looks bad for America until one brave man (think Denzel Washington) penetrates the conspiracy, and exposes the “spy” and her husband for the publicity-seeking double agents they really are. The ring is busted, the anti-American cabal inside the CIA is destroyed (I have an alternate ending in which the president — black, female, lesbian — disbands the Agency entirely, citing JFK as her authority), the Times is shuttered for sedition and our hero goes off to head up a new, honest, intelligence agency that actually gets something right.
Can you spell franchise?
Then Gillis tells me there’s already a movie like this in the works at Warner Bros, but with the opposite spin. It’s being written by Jez and John Butterworth, and it’s about somebody named Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson and how the fascist Bush administration deliberately tried to crush them by revealing her super-top-secret identity as a CIA operative in order to punish Wilson for speaking truth to power about the Chimpy McHitler-Cheney-Rove axis of evil. Like All the President’s Men it ends with the trail pointing directly to the highest levels of government, Nick Kristof savoring a Pulitzer Prize, Scooter Libby in leg irons, and the Plame-Wilson household about to cash in on a $2.5 million book advance and, very possibly, a job for Joe as Secretary of State in the Barack Hussein Obama Jr., administration.
The Butterworths are basing their story on the public record and the always-trustworthy accounts in the New York Times, and will also use Ms. Plame’s memoir Fair Game if the CIA allows her selfless, patriotic story to be published by the equally selfless and patriotic editors at Simon & Schuster. According to Variety, the producers, Jerry and Janet Zucker, “got to know Plame and Wilson because all four are involved in stem-cell politics.” As we say in Hollywood — it’s a relationship business.
But I don’t get it. That story doesn’t make any sense, even for Hollywood. She wasn’t undercover. The guy that just got busted by the special prosecutor wasn’t the “leaker.” Thanks to the Times, journalists have lost a huge chunk of their implicit First Amendment protections, and no government official in his or her right mind will ever speak to Tim Russert or Bob Woodward again.
So how is this a feel-good story? Am I missing something?
Relax, Joe Gillis said, have another Smithwick’s. I asked Barton Fink what he thought and he said that the “common man,” not politics, was his wheelhouse, but if he had to choose he’d side with the Butterworths because after all they got the gig. Joe White was hitting on a blonde in the corner so it took me a while to drag him away and out onto the street where we could look down the hill toward the old Gower Gulch, where the Poverty Row studios once stood, churning out B movies with heroes and villains and gave the likes of us jobs and good incomes. “It’s not fair,” I said.
“Relax, Dave,” he replied. “It’s Chinatown.”