The usual suspect?

Posted: Apr 09, 2006 12:05 AM

The Writers Guild of America this week offered to the world a list of the "101 Greatest Screenplays," naming Casablanca the best script ever written. Great movie. One of my all-time favorites.

The script, too, is great, I'm sure. Lots of funny lines by Julius and Philip Epstein, good political elements by co-contributor Howard Koch. But not mentioned is Casey Robinson. He was the well-known Hollywood writer who helped structure the movie, give it its best romantic scenes, and . . . isn't mentioned in the credits. The credit system for Hollywood writers is as screwed up as anything could possibly be and still survive, but Robinson had only himself to blame. His contract with the studio only allowed him to be listed as sole screenwriter — all or nothing. So when Robinson collaborated, he got nothing.

Casablanca, a movie about collaborating with the enemy, is a testament to how effective collaboration with friends can be — like the original Constitution of the United States. The Police Academy series is also, I guess, a testament to collaboration, but to how bad it can be, like today's real-world constitutional practice.

Writers often complain that they don't get proper credit for movies. But selecting Casablanca as the best movie script seems just a bit like screenwriters taking too much credit. Yes, Casablanca's great, but credit for its greatness goes just as much to the work of a gifted, hands-on producer, a super-competent director, a great cast, a fine composer, a handful of popular and patriotic songs, and . . . even an original play upon which the script was based.

Some of the best lines ("here's looking at you, kid") weren't in the script at all, just improvised on the set. The film had finished shooting when producer Hal Wallis came up with what became the film's memorable last line.

Cut to the present day: Hollywood may be political, but politics isn't the movies. In politics, the scripts aren't written down, and fiction is the polite way of saying "lies." A list of 101 Best Political Scripts would probably have to put Stonewalling and Obstruction of Justice near the top. Yes, this week the author of an infamous deed came to light, and the previously uncredited author is alleged to be none other than The Usual Suspect, our president.

For years now, pundits left and right have been arguing about the Valerie Plame spy revelation case, and an associated leakage of some confidential reports about WMDs. The whole ordeal was and is so complicated that most of us tended to shrug off its importance. But it also looked so base and political, the secrets leak so under-handed, and the spy revelation so indecent, it was hard not to take some interest. And the parallels to Casablanca are there: both stories are about a prelude to war; both involve espionage and secreted documents . . . and a certain lack of forthcomingness on the part of most of the players.

Now Vice President Cheney's former second banana (chief-of-staff) "Scooter" Libby has implicated the President and the Vice President in the WMD leak. Scooter had been indicted, you will remember, for obstruction of justice regarding the Plame revelation. The WMD leak was related because it countered the article by Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, who had argued against the rationale for a war against Iraq. On July 6, 2003, Wilson publicly questioned the administration's claims about Iraq WMDs. Two days later, Scooter leaked confidential information about the WMDs to reporter Judith Miller. Then, a few days after that, Bob Novak, in discussing the matter, outed Wilson's wife, Plame, as a CIA agent.

Not a single collaborator in this imbroglio has been charged with revealing Plame's true occupation. Instead, the investigation has gotten embroiled in the other leak, and Scooter is apparently copping to that, though saying that nothing illegal had been done, because . . . (drum roll) . . . the president did it. It was the president who authored the command to de-classify some previously classified information. He gave it his official okey-dokey, so it's officially hunky-dory.

One could say that Scooter's lying, and is wholly to blame. But what he says about the president and the veep fits with a lot of other things we know. Both scenarios make sense, and a scriptwriter could play it either way. Not being in the thick of things, I'm certainly not in the know. But there is a great deal of suspicion that this goes all the way to the top.

So, if instructions came from on high, why are we only hearing about this now? If the president wouldn't take screen credit for his act earlier because (say) he wanted to survive the 2004 election, then why didn't he put a stop to all this after the election? Why waste so much time and money since then?

It's not as if the wheels of justice are as unimportant as the plot to a forthcoming Police Academy 13: The Revenge of the Bailbondsmen.

Whatever the truth turns out to be, it does look like things are getting uglier. For some allies of this presidency, this may even mark the end of a beautiful friendship.