Nothing But the Truth

  Nothing But the Truth
  Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon

  3 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Ripped from the headlines... Is it another episode of "Law and Order?" No, it's "Nothing But the Truth," a thriller centered around a reporter's sense of integrity and the high price she pays to keep it. The truth is, "Nothing But the Truth" is a taut, tense political puzzle with bravura performances by Kate Beckinsale, Vera Farmiga, and Noah Wylie, as well as judicial journeyman Floyd Abrams.

The plot bears a striking resemblance to the government's case against C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame, whose identity was outed by New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Miller's articles claiming Iraq had WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) were cited as a catalyst for Bush's decision to turn Iraq into a Middle Eastern sinkhole. Complicating Plame's plight was her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, who had written an op-ed piece for The New York Times accusing Bush and his cronies of trumping up information in order to justify the "war" against Iraq. When questioned about her source, Miller refused to name Plame, even though Plame's involvement was considered a fait accompli. Wilson claimed the Bush administration had exposed his wife's identity as payback for the article he'd written, and the steadfast journalist wound up doing time in order to protect her source.

Writer/director Rod Lurie has taken the "Plame Affair" and flipped the details. In "Nothing But the Truth," reporter Rachel Armstrong (a focused Beckinsale), is told that Erica Van Doren (vexing Vera), a seemingly innocuous soccer mom who spends her spare time reading to children, is really a C.I.A. operative. To Rachel, it's the equivalent of finding out Natasha Fatale from "Rocky and Bullwinkle" is your kid's den mother. Digging deeper, Rachel discovers that Van Doren was sent to Venezuela on a fact finding mission following a failed assassination attempt on the President. Van Doren was the only agent to determine the Venezuelans had nothing to do with the botched presidential hit. Rachel realizes that if Van Doren is correct, the President's order for retaliatory air strikes inside Venezuela was a colossal international blunder. The government is more concerned there might be a traitor in their midst than who's right, and they want someone's skin, whether they're the security risk or not. Coincidently, Van Doren's journalist husband, Oscar Van Doren, has been critical of the President's regime. Oscar, Oscar, Oscar. Nice way to deflect attention from your spouse.
Rachel reveals Van Doren's identity in a front page story, unaware of the repercussions of her actions. The story paints a bull's eye on Van Doren. She quickly loses everything - her husband, her child, her job, even the right to read to her daughter's classmates. Within hours of the story reaching the public, Patton DuBois, an arrogant, by-the-book prosecutor, (miscast mug Matt Dillon), is appointed by the government to roast Rachel's source. DuBois wants to bring the loose lipped blabbermouth up on a charge of treason. Rachel refuses to name her informant, putting her career, family, and personal freedom in jeopardy. Rachel's lawyer, Alan Burnside (bland Alan Alda, whose torturous performance is akin to water boredom) may have underestimated his opponent's tenacity, but everyone seems to have miscalculated Rachel's resolve:

DuBois: It's been my experience that Ms. Armstrong will tell us.
Agent O'Hara: She's never had her Vassar ass in jail. She'll crack.
Van Doren: I don't know. I met her. I looked her in the eye. She's a water walker.

The plot may be telegraphed, but there's plenty of mental ping pong as Rachel's fortitude gets tested like that of a judicial Jobe. The battle lines between Rachel and Patton DuBois don't blur as much as writer/director Lurie claimed in interviews. He clearly manipulates the action so the audience is sympathetic toward Rachel being strong-armed by single-minded DuBois. So be it. DuBois is a certified cold-blooded conservative government droid with the heart of a prune who revels in torturing Rachel, so he deserves the audience's contempt.

It doesn't take the mind reading skills of Karnack to figure out that once the ink is dry on Rachel's article the judicially naive reporter is going to get nailed by the government's vengeful hammer. You'll also surmise pretty quickly that Rachel is going to dig her heels in and stand by her principals and not name her source, even if it means ankle bracelets and three squares a day for a few years. But Beckinsale's performance transcends the obvious choices her character makes. The resolute expression on Beckinsale's face as she walks down the cold prison hallway bound for another discouraging meeting with her lawyer and DuBois says she immersed herself in the role. Her skin is blotchy and pale, her eyes rimmed red with fatigue, yet there's not an ounce of waver in her voice or a hint she'll capitulate, and Beckinsale perfectly personifies Rachel's political persistence. Beckinsale also manages to suppress her aristocratic British accent, sounding all American. (Yet another talented Brit who can sound like they were raised in New York at the drop of a crumpet.)

Matching Beckinsale's solid Jesus-on-the-cross performance is Vera Farmiga as exposed C.I.A. operative Erica Van Doren. Rachel Armstrong's article ruins Van Doren's career and her life, but she's not going down without letting everyone know she doesn't like getting screwed. Van Doren's invective filled scene at Rachel's house is one of the film's most tense moments, as is Van Doren's meeting in a graveyard with her boss and an upstart fellow female agent who revels at her being eight balled. Viva Vera.

I love liberals, but I don't like Alan Alda. I quickly tired of his smart alecky career-making character Hawkeye Pierce on "M.A.S.H." Since "M.A.S.H" he's played a series of educated even-tempered, know-it-all bores. (See if you can stay conscious during his pasteurized performances in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (I'll avoid the obvious joke), and "Sweet Liberty," which he also had to take the blame for writing.) Burnside is a slight variation, although having him be a clothes horse is a welcome tweak. Alda is unexciting; fortunately the role nearly fits his workmanlike performance.

What's also surprising about Alda's Burnside is his high degree of failure. He completely underestimates DuBois' McCarthyesque power. Burnside fails to keep DuBois from condensing Armstrong's inquiry to trial process from a week to a day; he loses his appeal to keep Rachel from being jailed, repeatedly fails to spring her, and fails to protect her when the judge releases her out of sympathy. When the judge then pointedly tells both him and DuBois that the charges against Rachel will be dropped unless she's officially charged and arrested, you can practically hear DuBois warming up the Hummer, waiting to arrest Rachel the moment she steps through the prison gate. And Burnside doesn't see this coming? Guess that's what you get when a lawyer is defending you pro-bono.

Rod Lurie purposely cast pug Matt Dillon in the role of Patton DuBois because he wanted someone out of the ordinary to play the part. He should have gone full out and hired the unintelligible Sly Stallone or the incomprehensible John Claude Van Damme (or is it John Dam Van Claude?). Watching Dillon squirm and parade stiff-legged in a suit and mumble his lines is like taking in Al Capone reciting Shakespeare. Dillon adapts one of those lagging a George Bush Texas accent that suggests he's a buffoon, but like our ex-Pres, his unlimited power makes him a dangerous dumbass: "You're going to be asked to appear before a grand jury to identify your source. I'll be doing the asking. If for some reason you don't identify your source, you'll be held in contempt and that may mean jail time, and we're not talking about some Martha Stewart cell with some butler nonsense."

As Rachel's boss, Bonnie Benjamin, Angela Bassett hound is square-jawed, cut and determined. It doesn't hide the fact that like Dillon, the harder she tries, the less educated and convincing she sounds. David Schwimmer was the least likeable "Friend," and his years separated from Monica, Rachel, Chandler and the others haven't endeared him to the public. Playing Rachel's husband (How's that for a "Friends" irony?), he still comes across as a schlub, a whiner. For a man with a wife who's prolonged incarceration is crushing their family and has caused him to stray, he lacks any kind of emotional fire. He must've gone to the same acting school as Matt Dillon. Judging by what you see on the screen, neither of them graduated.

A few other actors leave lasting impressions. Angela Bassett hound's real-life husband, Courtney B. Vance ("Hunt for Red October"), has a small role as the hot-headed F.B.I Agent O'Hara; and Jamey Sheridan, who starred with Vance in "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" has a brief cameo as Vera Farmiga's writer husband, Oscar Van Doren. (Aha, six degrees of "Law and Order" separation.) The most satisfying and unexpected performance comes from Noah Wylie (wimpy Dr. John Carter on "E.R."). Wylie plays lawyer Avril Aaronson with the type of anger and passion Alda's Burnside should have had. Lurie drafted Floyd Abrams, a lawyer who specialized in first amendment cases, to play Judge Hall and to serve as a consultant to the film. I have no objections, your honor. Even though he has no previous acting experience, Abrams is much more believable than Dillon or Bassett are in their roles.   

Can You Handle the Truth? The Extras...

In the feature "The Truth Hurts: The Making of the Truth," Rod Lurie and his actors delve into the film's point of view and what each character represents. He's most appreciative of Vera Farmiga, calling her "One of the great acting beings on the planet." Lurie also states prophetically that the most surprising actor in the film is Wylie (and he is), and he's enthusiastic about the dead-wrong casting of Dillon, but at least had the right blueprint in mind for his character: "Patton is a posturing bully who takes his assignment personally, but he's smart, vengeful and patriotic."

Some of the most interesting and informative comments come from lawyer turned actor Floyd Abrams, who's litigated first amendment cases and seen the damage done by overzealous prosecutors.

As Rachel Armstrong rots in prison and even takes a major beat down from a fellow prisoner over who gets the top bunk, you'll still ask yourself, "Good Gawd, is all this suffering worth protecting someone's identity?" The film's sneaky, seemingly innocuous final scene in which Rachel's source is finally revealed will undoubtedly leave you thinking, "Yes, it's worth everything she had to endure." And that's the truth.



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