Monday, June 22, 2009
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Vera Farmiga, Matt Dillon, Alan Alda, Angela Bassett, Noah Wyle
Director: Rod Lurie
Runtime: 108 min.
Genre: Thriller, Drama
At the five minute mark, the critics inside me made a mental note that, if put together inside a comprehensible little sentence, would’ve read – This is an amateurish little script that is inspired more by newspaper events than by actual human beings. At the end of the film, I made another mental note, and this one for the general good was burned for the long run – Listen to, but never believe that stupid little smug critic over-eager to make judgments.
You might wonder, with talent as solid as Ms. Beckinsale, Mr. Alda, Ms. Farmiga, and Mr. Dillon, and a theatrical release (December 19th, ’09) during the awards season, why the film didn’t make more of a splash. The truth is that Yari Film Group (Crash, The Illusionist), the production house behind it, went bankrupt and could only find a limited theatrical run in the city of New York, and from thereon this was a case of “straight to DVD”. It is unfortunate that the economic downturn has affected us in ways more than we are aware of, for I daresay Mr. Lurie’s film is far more provoking than any of the political thrillers that have found some luck with the awards, including the abysmal Frost/Nixon. Never mind. Let bygones be bygones.
And let us stick to the facts, the primary of which is that Nothing But The Truth is a powerful film. As a thriller it is smart unraveling the narrative with great clarity. But its strength and impact are felt through the human drama at its centre, which is unusually poignant, and often devastatingly poetic. The success of the script lay in its ability to let its unfolding events evoke a more dramatic reaction, and even some of its more surprising moments, including the identity of the original source, register more of an emotional note. I believe the credit for that ought to rest fairly and squarely on the actors, who provide some of the most incredible performances of the year gone, and it is a shame most of them went unnoticed.
Mr. Lurie bases the premise of his film on the Valerie Plame leak-out. I say bases because I intend to credit him with the way his script only uses the general outlines of that intelligence-fiasco, involving top government officials, some top names from the New York Times, and arguably the most infamous war this side of World War II. Making his film deal with that historical event head-on would have been too much of an ambition, would have raised lot many questions, and would have unduly convoluted the whole purpose Mr. Lurie attaches to its human drama. It is wise, not at all a case of aim small and miss small, but rather a case of sidestepping unnecessary terrain to look at the bigger picture, and raise questions regarding the true nature of the loss at hand.
The President of the United States barely survives an assassination attempt, and resulting injuries to his shoulder. Three weeks later Venezuela is served with heavy air-bombardment. Rachel Armstrong (Ms. Beckinsale), a weekly editorial columnist at the Capital Sun-Times, gets hold of a piece of red-hot information, which if let out would expose the government’s conniving handling of the whole affair. Drawing a parallel to the Bush administration’s apparent lies that led to the war (Nigeria-Iraq uranium deal) and the resulting Joseph Wilson opinion editorials disclaiming the administration’s reasons, Rachel learns that one of her neighbors, Erica Van Doren (Ms. Farmiga) is a CIA spook and that she was in Venezuela to explore the country’s involvement in the assassination attempt and in her report she rubbished the theory. The government still launches the attack, and her husband writes the article. Rachel, finding great support from her editors, prints this startling revelation, and everything changes. Changes neither Rachel nor Erica could ever imagine.
It is fascinating how Mr. Lurie balances the act between Rachel and Erica, two soccer moms whose kids go to the same school. Rachel, she is a wonderful specimen of writing, created with great observation and compassion. She isn’t a paragon of idealism, not a social or a political activist (read Arundhati Roy), but only a journalist who wants to make a career for herself. She believes in the power of the First Amendment, and probably never doubted that her rights would amount to zilch if she tried to threaten the government.
Special Federal Prosecutor Patton Dubois (Mr. Dillon) is given the case and unending power, for the revealing of the identity of a CIA field agent is a matter of National Security, and his job is to find out who was Rachel’s source who’s leaking valuable information in the out. Rachel is ignorant what’s going to hit her. She’s legally innocent, but is bound by the law to reveal her source. She doesn’t, not even before the court, citing journalistic principles, and she is jailed for contempt of court. Even when the Sun-times hires big-shot lawyer Alan Burnside (Mr. Alda) to fight for her.
It is a terrific performance from Ms. Beckinsale, her face a roadmap of astonishment and fear. Those who seek to compare her character vis-à-vis Judith Miller (the New York Times journalist who was jailed for 84 days) are missing the point. Her Rachel isn’t supposed to be somebody, she is somebody. She feels real, her fears feel real, and yet we’re amazed at her resolve to keep her mouth shut. Had she played it with a degree of idealism, we would’ve found it a little bit difficult to believe her. And she avoids that pitfall, accomplishing something truly difficult, moving us with her vulnerabilities, sinking deeper and deeper into a quagmire and making us believe in her stance all the way. Mr. Alda’s character has an invigorating speech at the end, something written just about as brilliantly as the Jim Garrison speech from JFK, and a big part of its effectiveness is due to Ms. Beckinsale.
And then there’s Ms. Farmiga, who plays a woman whose career might have been made out of acting strong in the face of the toughest situations. She does, but how much can she endure. She is a mom too. It is remarkable how she puts on an amicable façade when dealing with strangers, and how she transforms into the lioness she is at the drop of a hat. As much as about anything, Nothing But The Truth is about two women caught in something that is quite out of their comprehension.
The one commendable aspect of Mr. Lurie’s film is its readiness to give everybody a chance, and he is ably supported by his actors. And he supports them in return. He seeks to understand them, and convey to us their apprehensions. For almost the entirety, all his characters are framed in exquisite close-ups, giving us more than a fair chance to observe them. Often he blackens the rest of the screen so that we’re not distracted by anything else. Mr. Alda is remarkable as he so usually is, and Mr. Dillon reins in a nonchalance of a most empathizing kind. Yet, Mr. Lurie betrays himself, betrays his film, and betrays us in those final moments, when he quite needlessly paints the Dillon character as a villain. It is a betrayal to Mr. Dillon’s magnificently layered character and a well thought out performance. Was it needed? We completely understood that he was doing a job. We completely understood that the argument between principles of journalism and the National Security isn’t something that is a fight between principles, isn’t an ideological battle, but one that is given to matters of simple practical sense. Without the principles of journalism there would be no Deep Throat and there would be no Watergate. Yet National security is of utmost importance too. This is an ambiguous little scenario, and there’s probably no solution to it. Yet Mr. Lurie paints the arm of the establishment in black, which I find, for some reason, infuriating. Maybe because this is a good film, and I expect more from a good film. Nothing But The Truth moved me, and it makes me sad such a wonderful film doesn’t get the recognition it so thoroughly deserves. Maybe time shall bestow upon it some good fortune.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 11:03 PM