Sony // 2008 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // April 28th, 2009
The truth is her most dangerous secret.
In late 2008, while a certain, ridiculously overrated film about a winner of a T.V. game show enjoyed an awards-season lovefest, a movie called Nothing but the Truth got a few award-qualifying screenings and then promptly vanished, never receiving a wide release.
The film's disappearing act was unfortunate, as Nothing but the Truth, while not without its flaws, is nonetheless a sharply written and strongly acted film that deserves more attention than it has received thus far, something Sony's DVD of the film will hopefully rectify.
When an assassination attempt is made upon the president of the United States, the government responds by attacking Venezuela, where it is believed the plot against the president originated. An ambitious Washington reporter named Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale, Laurel Canyon), however, uncovers evidence that the United States attacked Venezuela despite receiving intelligence that disproved the nation's involvement in the assassination attempt. Armstrong writes an article about her findings and in doing so outs Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga, The Departed), the CIA operative who found the Venezuela intelligence.
Armstrong's story brings a swift reaction from the U.S. government, who demands to know who told Armstrong that Van Doren was with the CIA. When Armstrong refuses to reveal her source, U.S. prosecutor Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon, Rumble Fish) has her thrown in jail until she agrees to talk. As days turn into weeks, and weeks into months, Armstrong refuses to yield, with dire consequences for herself and her family.
Subtlety is not a part of filmmaker Rod Lurie's playbook, to which anyone who has seen his films can readily attest. And while Lurie's penchant for heavy-handedness and contrivance brought down previous films such as Deterrence and Resurrecting the Champ, with Nothing but the Truth, the filmmaker reins these tendencies in (relatively speaking), resulting in his best film to date.
While the basic plot of Nothing but the Truth bears a degree of resemblance to the sagas of Valerie Plame and Judith Miller, if you go into this movie looking for a detailed account of their stories, prepare for a disappointment. Lurie takes the basic concepts of a reporter jailed for refusing to reveal a source and a CIA operative who is outed in a newspaper article and creates a narrative that is more concerned with the lives of its principal characters than it is with recreating current events. In doing so, Lurie crafts a powerful look at not only the fragility of Constitutional rights, but also the cost of journalistic integrity.
As the filmmaker himself discusses on this DVD, Lurie comes from a journalistic background and is sympathetic to members of the Fourth Estate, which comes through in the film's portrayal of Rachel Armstrong. While the character certainly questions the rightness of her actions in light of the consequences they have for her family, the film is clearly in Armstrong's corner. This is generally not a problem (for me, at least, but I can certainly see this film ruffling conservative feathers), although sometimes Lurie goes overboard, most glaringly in his depiction of Armstrong's husband, Ray (David Schwimmer, The Pallbearer), who goes from devoted hubby and father to adulterous heel. I'm not saying that a real spouse placed in Ray's situation wouldn't do the same thing, but within the context of the film, the move feels calculated to shift more sympathy Armstrong's way.
Lurie makes a wise decision in depicting Erica Van Doren as an equally strong and sympathetic character. Armstrong's article does real and palpable damage to Van Doren's career and family, and this helps muddy the waters a bit when it comes to choosing sides in the film. In the film's two scenes between both characters, it's not hard to feel for Van Doren and not for Armstrong.
Of course, even with sharply drawn characters, Nothing but the Truth still could have been a failure from a dramatic standpoint. Fortunately, it's not, thanks to a compelling narrative that takes a hard look at First Amendment issues. In choosing the freedom of the press for his subject, Lurie has found a topic appropriate for his blunt writing style. The speed and force with which the government comes down upon Armstrong is abrupt and startling to the characters and the viewer alike, and Lurie keeps the narrative moving briskly, but not overly so.
As the plot progresses, Lurie keeps adding nuance, with commentary on the fleeting attention the media focuses on subjects like Armstrong's plight, the shifting public perception of the media and its role in society, and even sexism, in the form of criticism against Armstrong for staying in jail instead of being with her son. All of this culminates in a terrific speech delivered by Armstrong's attorney Albert Burnside (Alan Alda, The Aviator) at a U.S. Supreme Court hearing regarding Armstrong's case.
But Lurie saves his biggest surprise for last, in the form of a plot twist that will strike you as either clever or unbelievably contrived. (I find that I hover somewhere between the two.) Regardless of one's feelings about how Lurie chooses to close his film, what precedes this ending is so well done that it's hard to find too much fault.
Another key factor in the success of Nothing but the Truth is the strength of its performances, led by a turn from Kate Beckinsdale that was largely ignored when it came time for awards to be doled out. After years of appearing mostly in risible genre dreck, Beckinsale is given a meaty role, and she truly rises to the occasion. Through Beckinsale, we see Armstrong's ambition, her love for her son and her shock and outrage at the treatment she's subjected to. Lurie relies a lot on close-ups for Nothing But the Truth, which I generally don't like, but in this film, this style is advantageous in that we get to see the myriad emotions conveyed by Beckinsale throughout the film, and how skilled she is when it comes to reacting to the people and events within a given scene. To see what I mean, pay particular attention to Beckinsale's face during the scene where Armstrong is found in contempt and ordered to jail, during a jail visit by Ray and the couple's son Timmy (Preston Bailey) and during a conjugal visit that ends badly.
As Van Doren, Vera Farmiga has a much smaller role, but she gives an unquestionably vivid portrayal. While the dialogue her character delivers is kind of silly at times (she talks about the "bowels of hell" while arguing with Armstrong), the conviction and indignation Farmiga brings to her character is nothing short of startling.
Remarkably, the rest of the cast is just as good. Angela Bassett (Sunshine State) brings grave authority to her role as Armstrong's editor, while Noah Wyle (E.R.) is clearly enjoying himself as the newspaper's hotheaded legal counsel. David Schwimmer is fine in a weakly written role. Alan Alda is terrific as the overly dapper but committed attorney Burnside, and his monologue is a highlight of the actor's long career. Matt Dillon is also strong as Patton Dubois, resisting the temptation to play the role as a mustache-twirler. Dillon's restraint in the role makes it a lot easier to see things from his perspective; namely, that someone has committed treason by revealing the identity of a covert operative, and it's his duty to uncover that person's identity.
Sony's DVD of Nothing but the Truth is somewhat underwhelming from a technical standpoint. The transfer is soft and grainy at times; I don't know if this has anything to do with how the film was shot, but I still think this could have looked better. The sound is much stronger; I have no real complaints about the disc's 5.1 mix. For extras, there is a feature commentary with Lurie and producer Marc Frydman. Lurie does nearly all the talking (Frydman doesn't even show up for more than an hour into the track), and keeps up a steady stream of discussion. My biggest complaint about this commentary is that Lurie spends too much time praising the cast. If you've read my review all the way up to this point, you know how I feel about the acting in this film, but Lurie goes on for too long on the subject. He's much more interesting when discussing how certain scenes were filmed and how the actors approached their scenes. Another benefit of the commentary is that it made me appreciate the look of the film a little more. While I still prefer wide shot compositions and longer takes as a rule, Lurie and cinematographer Alik Sakharov's approach has its moments, particularly the shot leading up to Armstrong getting beat up in prison that begins tightly focused on Beckinsale's eyes, and the last shot featuring Van Doren.
Next up for the extras is a collection of deleted scenes that runs about 10 and a half minutes. While most of these are more or less unremarkable, the last scene that is included would have significantly changed the end of the film and is worth watching. (I would definitely watch the film first, of course.) Finally, there is a 29-minute making of featurette that wastes about half its runtime with everybody praising everybody.
Unjustly ignored during its brief time in theaters, Nothing But the Truth is a smart drama filled with well-drawn characters and engaging performances. It's the kind of film that deserves to be discovered on DVD.
No contempt citations for this one. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes