[29 April 2009]
Rod Lurie’s Nothing But the Truth comes to DVD as other adult-oriented films, like the recent Duplicity and State of Play, strive to recall the spirit of ‘70s thrillers: that is to say, thrillers that tend to involve talking, snooping, and reporting over car chases, boat chases, or train chases.
Nothing But the Truth is not just adult-minded, but vaguely political: reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale) faces pressure, and eventually jail time, over her refusal to name the source who contributed to the outing of CIA operative Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga). Special prosecutor Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon) battles lawyer Alan Burnside (Alan Alda) over Armstrong’s freedom, pitting national security against freedom of the press.
Though it begins with obvious parallels to the Valerie Plame/Judith Miller case, the film was derailed by financial, not political, circumstances: fledgling indie house Yari Film Group went broke and couldn’t follow through on a planned year-end release (it supposedly played in New York City for a week sometime around the end of December, though at the time I was unable to find which theater, if any, was actually showing it). Now it seeks an audience as, essentially, an unusually tony direct-to-DVD release.
On the disc’s commentary track—recorded too early to address the film’s eventual release limbo—Lurie says that he actually got the idea from his tenure as showrunner of ABC’s Commander in Chief TV series; a storyline about a jailed journalist was scotched from the show along with Lurie, so he spun it off into its own feature, which wound up infused with additional topicality when the Plame story broke.
Lurie’s interest in hot-button issues, amateur-wonk status, and willingness to reuse favorite story ideas are all vaguely Aaron Sorkinesque, but Nothing But the Truth has more of a Law and Order feel: straight ahead, square, technically well-crafted, yet not especially invigorating.
Indeed, television procedurals since the ‘70s-thriller heyday have both raised and lowered the bar for this sort of material: the proliferation of shows about cops, lawyers, journalists, and government spies have made the more original cinematic thrillers (to pick an unfair example, David Fincher’s brilliant Zodiac) easier to pick out, while also siphoning off the adult audience those movies need.
It’s hard for a movie to stand out when it’s more adult in theory than in execution. Lurie’s dialogue spends a lot of time explaining, wedging exposition barely-between the lines: journalists work hard for little pay; laws protecting them are sometimes murky; contempt of court can mean jail time; special prosecutors have special powers; people don’t respect the press anymore. The actors reveal more through their unspoken qualities: Farmiga’s tough but twitchy flintiness; Dillon’s casual, polite, near-invisible menace; and Beckinsale’s visible struggle not to panic in the face of mounting adversity.
The small ensemble lends the movie humanity, especially whenever Farmiga faces off against Armstrong, her superiors, or pretty much anyone else. Nothing But the Truth has a strong feminist hook, too—both Armstrong and Van Doren are underestimated due to their gender—but in all of its issue-jockeying, it loses its characters. Slowly, Beckinsale is sanctified and the men around her become one-note. By the time the focus tightens onto Armstrong’s jail time, the movie turns righteous and, it must be said, a little tedious: a docudrama that runs out of facts and has to improvise its way out, eventually turning to a memorable, if equally strange and dubious, plot twist of sorts.
A postscript to that twist is one of the only notable moments during ten minutes’ worth of deleted material included on the DVD. Most of the scenes are more like fleeting moments—additional and unnecessary underlining and emphasizing. Lurie’s mildly engaging, slightly prickly commentary fills in the background, but ultimately the straightforwardness of Nothing But the Truth doesn’t present enough of a foreground.