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Profile: Sean Penn

Sean Penn was a participant or observer in the following events:

Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly says that those who oppose the Iraq war, such as actor Sean Penn and journalist Peter Arnett, are traitors. (Unger 2007, pp. 290)

Katharine Gun, who leaked an NSA memo to the British press in February 2003 that revealed the existence of an elaborate US plan to “bug” UN delegates (see January 31, 2003), is arrested and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act for giving a copy of the memo to the press. Gun was a translator for British intelligence, who worked at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) before losing her job over the leak in June. Gun does not dispute leaking the memo, instead calling it “justified.” Any leaks she made exposed “serious illegality and wrongdoing on the part of the US Government,” she says, and were made to prevent “wide-scale death and casualties among ordinary Iraqi people and UK forces.” (BBC 11/13/2003) Gun has had the support of a wide array of antiwar and civil rights activists, led in the US by actor Sean Penn and activist Jesse Jackson, who signed a statement shortly before her court appearance praising her as a whistleblower. (Observer 1/18/2004) The British government decides to drop the charges against her. No official explanation for this is forthcoming, though it may have been precipitated by the defense’s intent to argue that Gun leaked to the media in order to save lives from being lost in a war, an argument that would cause political damage to the government. Liberty spokeswoman Shami Chakrabarti says the decision to charge Gun may itself have been politically motivated, perhaps to cow future whistleblowers, and observes, “One wonders whether disclosure in this criminal trial might have been a little too embarrassing.” Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesman, says the reason for dropping the charges might be to keep the Attorney General’s legal advice for war with Iraq a secret. Prosecutor Mark Ellison merely tells the court, “There is no longer sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction. It would not be appropriate to go into the reasons for this decision.” The only thing needed for a successful prosecution under the Official Secrets Act is for the prosecution to show that Gun is covered by the act, which she is, and that she revealed information covered by the Act, which she has admitted. Gun’s lawyer, James Webb, calls the prosecution’s excuse “rather lame.” (BBC 11/13/2003; Cheston and Gusmaroli 2/25/2004) Gun says that leaking the NSA memo was “necessary to prevent an illegal war in which thousands of Iraqi civilians and British soldiers would be killed or maimed.… I have only ever followed my conscience.” (Solomon 12/28/2005) A month before the court proceedings, the New York Times’s Bob Herbert writes in defense of Gun, “We are not talking about a big-time criminal here. We are not talking about someone who would undermine the democratic principles that George W. Bush and Tony Blair babble about so incessantly, and self-righteously, even as they are trampling on them. Ms. Gun is someone who believes deeply in those principles and was willing to take a courageous step in support of her beliefs. She hoped that her actions would help save lives. She thought at the time that if the Security Council did not vote in favor of an invasion, the United States and Britain might not launch the war.” (Herbert 1/19/2004) And just days before the court proceedings begin, liberal columnist Molly Ivins wrote, “…Gun may be sentenced to prison for doing precisely what we all hope every government employee will try to do: Prevent the government from committing an illegal and immoral act. Some dare call it patriotism.” (Ivins 2/18/2004)

Actors Naomi Watts and Sean Penn as Valerie Plame Wilson and Joseph Wilson.Actors Naomi Watts and Sean Penn as Valerie Plame Wilson and Joseph Wilson. [Source: credit Movieweb (.com)]The movie Fair Game, based on the memoir of the same name by outed CIA official Valerie Plame Wilson (see October 22, 2007), is released in American movie theaters. (MovieWeb (.com) 7/21/2010) Actors Naomi Watts and Sean Penn portray Plame Wilson and her husband, Joseph Wilson; the movie is directed by noted action movie creator Doug Liman. Reviews of the movie are generally positive, though CNN reviewer Tom Charity says it fails to generate the same level of excitement that Liman’s earlier movies created, possibly because of the lack of intense action sequences. Charity says Watts makes for a “distinctly passive heroine,” with Penn “tak[ing] a more dynamic role as Wilson, refusing to back down and taking on the administration in a battle waged over the airwaves and in the op-ed pages of the nation’s newspapers.” Reviewer Joe Tyrell is more positive, calling Watts and Penn “top-flight.” Chicago Sun-Times reviewer Roger Ebert writes that the film “is unusually bold for a fictionalization based on real events. Using real names and a good many facts, it argues: (1) Saddam Hussein had no WMD; (2) the CIA knew it; (3) the White House knew it; (4) the agenda of Cheney and his White House neocons required an invasion of Iraq no matter what, and (5) therefore, the evidence was ignored and we went to war because of phony claims. Well. That’s what the film says. There will no doubt be dissent. Few people are happy to be portrayed as liars and betrayers. What amazes me is that Fair Game doesn’t play the game of using fictional names. They’re all right there, including Cheney personally ordering the intelligence to be falsified.” Charity writes, “The movie becomes a portrait of a marriage splintering under extraordinary outside pressure, a study in self-righteous male pride running afoul of a mother’s anxiety for the safety and well-being of her children,” and chides the outspokenly progressive Penn for portraying a character “so close to [his] public persona.” The entire film, Charity writes, is “workmanlike, earnest but a little dry and predictable. Perhaps we’ve become inured to government corruption since the heyday of the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, but at this stage the film’s ‘revelations’ about the propaganda war that pre-sold the Iraq invasion will come as old news to anyone who’s been paying even the slightest attention. A more challenging and relevant movie might have focused on Scooter Libby and probed the convictions that drove him to obstruct justice and commit perjury.” Tyrell praises David Andrew’s portrayal of Libby, noting that he catches Libby’s persona “down to the last oily drop.” (Ebert 11/3/2010; Charity 11/5/2010; Tyrell 11/13/2010) Ebert concludes: “This isn’t a lathering, angry attack picture. Wilson and Plame are both seen as loyal government employees, not particularly political until they discover the wrong information. The implication is that if the Bush administration hadn’t suppressed their information and smeared them, there might have been no Iraq war, and untold thousands of lives would have been saved. This topic has been so poisoned by misinformation that a rational discussion seems impossible. I suppose the question becomes, how well does Fair Game work as a movie? I suspect it will work better the more you walk in agreeing with it.” (Ebert 11/3/2010)


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