On her way out the door after a morning editorial meeting, reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale) is called back. Her editor, Bonnie (Angela Bassett), smiles, barely. “We’re gonna fast track the story,” she announces. “Your story.” Rachel catches her breath, then braces for questions from Avril (Noah Wyle), the paper’s in-house lawyer. Though the story is “factually in line,” he warns, “What you guys are okay with the government may not be. The laws are murky, it’s illegal to reveal the identity of an undercover CIA agent.” Rachel nods, thinking such counsel is all she needs. But, she soon discovers, she’s nowhere near covered.
Based very loosely on the story of Valerie Plame’s outing by the Bush Administration in 2003, Rod Lurie’s Nothing But the Truth looks at the compromises and complications that shape the “truth” in legal systems, media collusions, and politics in DC (here the initial event is an assassination attempt on the U.S. president instead of a search for WMDs, and a war launched against Venezuela instead of Iraq). As Avril has guessed, the truth of Rachel’s story—that Plame-ish Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga) is a CIA NOC (non-official cover)—becomes largely irrelevant for the legal wranglings that follow, except, perhaps for the fact that no one charges her or the paper with libel. The problem for Rachel, the film’s sort-of stand-in for Judy Miller, is not that her action is illegal, but, as Avril points out, that giving up the name of a secret agent is. And that means trouble for Rachel on multiple fronts, from the Administration, from the CIA, from Justice, and, as it turns out, from inside her own household.
The effects are immediate, for both Rachel and Erica. And in its focus on the two women, even as they are increasingly at odds, the film uses conventions some might consider melodramatic—both mothers are concerned for their young children (who happen to be attend the same school), and both must endure recriminations from their husbands. Unlike, say, Joe Wilson in the real-life version that played out variously in newspapers and tabloids and glossy magazines like Vanity Fair case, Oscar Van Doren (Jamey Sheridan) drives out of the movie as soon as the story breaks. As Erica stands alone in her driveway, desperately sad because he’s taking their young daughter to a “safe” (non-televised) spot as well as leaving her, she smiles, waves, and calls out as the car disappears. The camera holds for a beat on Farmiga’s face, falling.
Rachel’s maternal struggle takes a different shape, as she’s the one who disappears, at least for little Timmy (Preston Bailey).Picked up by federal agents just after she drops the boy at school, she’s confronted by the New Orleans-drawly Federal Prosecutor Patton DuBois (Matt Dillon), creepily courteous as he threatens her with jail (“We’re not talking some sort of a Martha Stewart cell with a butler nonsense”). His know-it-all affect is matched by the men who, supposedly, mean to defend her, from Avril to the slick, designer-suited lawyer Alan Burnside (Alan Alda, revisiting his role from Flash of Genius) to the resentful novelist husband, Ray (David Schwimmer).
It’s not like she’s not warned things will go wrong—but the most truthful assessments of her situation repeatedly come from women. When Avril makes noises, Bonnie unflinchingly insists the paper will pay for any and all fees; while Ray whines, a furious and at least upfront Erica comes by her backyard to warn her (“You are an unpatriotic little cunt who’s going to walk right off the plank into the bowels of hell, do you know that?”); and the lady guard who shows her around the jail on her first day lays out the rules, plainly and without pretense. There’s no fighting over turf or stuff, she asserts, “Fighting just buys you time in deseg… In the movies, they call it the hole.”
At moments like this, the film pitches into old-school melodrama—women in chains and all kinds of chaos, courtesy of men. But the film takes a next step too, aligning Erica and Rachel’s experiences in order to indict the old boys’ system, the plank they’ve both walked off. Erica is obviously tough (her language and attitude indicating she’s been hanging around guys in a guys; world) and Rachel seems less so, but it’s not a surprise that it’s the carefully reading agent who gauges her opponent correctly, right off. When DuBois commends Erica’s capacity to “beat the box” (a lie detector test), but snarks that Rachel will break, Erica says no, she’s looked in the reporter’s eyes, and “She’s a water-walker.” That is, she believes in the principle she’s defending, that sources must be protected in order for news operations to do their work.
The film is actually dealing with a couple of principles. The first is the one Rachel cites, but it gets twisted into a second one, based in misogyny (and not a point newn to Lurie, who worked on it in The Contender). Burnside eventually gets this, asserting in a courtroom (after naming the press the watchdog of the government, he asks, “What then is the nature of government, if it has no fear of accountability?”). But he only catches on after she spells it out for him in her own overwritten speech: “A man leaves his family to go to jail to protect a principle and they name a holiday after him. A man leaves his children to go fight in a war and they erect a monument to him. A woman does the same thing and she’s a monster.”
Erica has her own version of this showdown with her former boss at the agency (Michael O’Neil). In a tautly acted scene set in a cemetery (where government agents in movies love to meet), he suggests she outed herself, since they can’t get anyone to confess to doing it. “You’re just aching for it to be me,” she simmers. “This way, you can tell the press it’s not a rogue agent, just a silly little girl whose feelings got hurt that her investigative conclusions were ignored by the president of the United States.”
As she walks toward the camera, leaving him and her past behind, Erica recalls that phenomenal cemetery scene at the end of The Third Man, when Alida Valli leaves behind Joseph Cotten, also for a principle. It’s a fabulous moment, much less mushy than the one the film privileges (by repeating), where Rachel tells her little boy that tattling is sometimes necessary, because “You’re not supposed to have to put up with bullies.” Surrounded by them, Erica and Rachel hang onto their integrity, but little else.