By Scott Mendelson
Rod Lurie’s Nothing But The Truth is the very definition of professionalism. It is a rock-solid entertainment, made by adults, starring adults, and intended for adults. In a film industry less dominated by more fantastical genres, it probably would qualify as a B-movie. But, in today’s kid-friendly and fantasy-drenched multiplexes it stands out as that rarest of things – a quality drama for grownups.
The plot is a moderate reworking of the Valerie Plame/Judith Miller story from summer 2005 In very brief, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for a time for refusing to reveal a source on a story (written by others) that revealed the identity of a CIA operative Valerie Plame. Plame’s husband had written an embarrassing editorial debunking on one of the main justifications that the Bush administration used for war with Iraq. The story here is slightly different. In this case, Washington-based reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale, capping a solid year that started with Snow Angels) refuses to reveal the source of leak regarding the identity of a CIA officer (an Oscar worthy Vera Farmiga), whose husband revealed that Venezuela was wrongly blamed for the assassination attempt on the president.
As you can see, this slight change almost qualifies as cheating. In Lurie’s version, the reporter may be reckless in exposing the identity of an undercover operative, but she’s still on the side that wishes to expose the corruption of a sitting (right-wing) president. In the real story, Judith Miller was helping to cover up those who exposed Plame’s identity as an act of right-wing political retribution. It didn’t help that Miller was one of the primary cheerleaders in the run up to the Iraq invasion, her work was eventually so utterly debunked that she was allegedly forced out. First-amendment die-hards like myself were torn that summer, but the constitutional martyrs are not always the good guys. It would have been interesting to see Lurie paint a sympathetic picture of a war-monger and lousy reporter, playing the righteous victim as she went to jail to protect the tenants of her profession.
But, that is not the film that Lurie wishes to make. And the film he has made is a very good one. Presented with a bare minimum of melodrama, the film focuses on the plight of Armstrong while also dealing with the aftershock for CIA agent Erica Van Doren. As Van Doren is repeatedly grilled by her superiors (who think that either she is the leak or she sloppily disclosed her identity) and Armstrong is threatened with jail time, we realize that we sympathize with both of these women. Surprisingly for a Rod Lurie picture, the film goes out of its way to avoid painting anyone with a particularly villainous brush. Even the bulldoggish Special Prosecutor (Matt Dillon) is not evil, but simply dedicated to a course of action that the film does not agree with.
The rest of the film is exceptionally cast. Alan Alda has several winning scenes as a once powerful attorney who eventually takes Armstrong’s case (he knows full well that the press no longer has the support of the public it attempts to inform). David Schwimmer does understated work as Armstrong’s embittered husband, and Noah Wyle has fun as the increasingly flustered representative of the newspaper in peril. Only Angela Bassett is underserved, as she’s given too little to do as Armstrong’s sympathetic editor.
There really isn’t much more to say. The story unfolds pretty much as you’d expect it to, with a couple mild twists along the way. That the film stands up for reporters’ rights over national security is kind of a given. Farmiga does some of the best work of her career, even if it’s too understated to attract much attention. Beckinsale has a great moment when she acknowledges the double standard of women/mothers sticking up for principle to the emotional harm of their children (“you can trust reporters, unless they’re mothers, cause then they’ll eventually crack”), and every major character is portrayed as intelligent, principled, and at least partially sympathetic. This is simply a smart film filled with smart actors who play smart characters.
It is a shame that it is likely to be lost in the December awards derby, since surely it would have gotten more attention as adult counter programming in the spring or summer (why oh why can’t the studios release ‘award-worthy’ movies all year round?). But Nothing But The Truth absolutely deserves your attention. It rises to the level of quality that we should not take for granted, even while we wish we could. It’s just a darn good movie.