When the words "inspired by real events" are attached to a screenplay, viewers should feel warned.
Agent of Influence, a CTV movie airing Sunday, is based on murky events -- a gay diplomat, blackmail, maybe murder -- that occurred in 1964, at the height of the Cold War and during Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson's Liberal administration.
But the screenplay clearly goes well beyond the official record, setting up a story of lies and betrayal in the diplomatic community that's fascinating to watch but should be taken with a grain of salt.
Director Michel Poulette concedes that much of the plot is speculation but says the story was bigger than reality itself.
"That's why right from the beginning the writer told everybody that he had taken some liberties but he thinks these kinds of liberty give a real portrait of the situation."
In other words, facts have to be twisted to get to a larger truth.
"Like any true story, when you bring it to the screen you have to romance some of the stuff, then you've got to dress it up in a certain way," adds actor Marina Orsini, who plays an RCMP investigator brought into the case of John Watkins, the Canadian ambassador in Moscow.
Watkins -- played to classy perfection by Christopher Plummer -- was an intellectual and bon vivant. And he was gay, still illegal in the diplomatic corps of the sixties. While there was no evidence he had been compromised by the KGB, the Americans were suspicious and pressing the Mounties to investigate.
The story proposes that Watkins, who had severe angina, died in October, 1964, while being interrogated by the RCMP and the CIA. Officially, he died in Montreal having dinner with friends.
But in the 1980s, Ian Adams, an investigative reporter and writer, began to look into the case and found that the official record smacked of a cover-up.
Adams and his son Riley co-wrote the teleplay in which the CIA is directly linked to the death of Watkins as well as to the mysterious suicide in Cairo several years earlier of another Canadian diplomat.
"It's Pearson they're after!" Plummer's Watkins says desperately at one point when he realizes that the CIA is actually out to bring down Pearson's government, which it saw as too soft on communism.
It was Watkins's diplomatic skills that had led to the sale of millions of tonnes of Canadian grain to the Soviets in the fifties, providing prosperity to western farmers. But there was never any evidence of blackmail.
Left unclear are the details of Pearson's decision to stay out of the interrogation and whether Watkins was prepared to take the fall for his boss.
Poulette agrees the story now resonates more deeply following the events of Sept. 11 -- with civil rights in the U.S. taking a back seat to national security -- and with U.S. involvement in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He points to the recent scolding from the U.S. ambassador for Canada's refusal to take part in the Iraqi offensive. "If ever a Canadian film has showed how small our leeway from the USA is, I think it's a project like this one."
Agent of Influence blatantly shows the CIA puppetmasters pulling the RCMP strings, a relationship Poulette doesn't believe has changed much since the sixties.
Orsini's character, Cpl. Diane Fletcher, is not only a composite of several male RCMP officers, but is a creative stretch since women weren't recruited into the force until 1974. Her character is torn between ambition -- the advancement that would come from exposing Watkins -- and her ultimate realization that he was a victim of a smear campaign.
"It's really a story where personal and professional ambition meets human compassion," Orsini says. "She, of course, very quickly realizes that she's got to save her buns, too, that she's been had."
Both Poulette and Orsini agree that working with Plummer was a dream assignment.
"He makes it look easy and he makes it easy on you, too, as a partner," she says.
Poulette says Plummer was easy to work with because he comes to the set very prepared. And his talent, like the tide, lifts all boats.
"It was interesting to see all the other actors giving their best because they were working with Christopher Plummer."