Monday, September 7, 2009

Nothing but the Truth (Battleplan/Yuri/Sony, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Nothing but the Truth, a 2008 thriller based on current events — writer/director Rod Lurie was obviously riffing off the case of Judith Miller, former New York Times reporter who went to jail for 85 days rather than reveal the name of her source for a story she never actually wrote about the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, whose husband Joseph Wilson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” exploding the point in President Bush’s case for the war in Iraq that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake (a step in the refining of pitchblende into uranium) from the African country of Niger. In Lurie’s rescencion, the President is someone named Lyman, and in the opening scene he is the subject of an assassination attempt. He survives, but becomes convinced that the government of Venezuela is behind the attempt on his life and orders an attack on Venezuela despite the advice of the U.S.’s former Venezuelan ambassador, Oscar Van Doren (Jamey Sheridan), that Venezuela had nothing to do with the assassination attempt.

Then the scene cuts to the offices of the (fictional) Washington, D.C. paper Capital Sun-Times, where reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale, top-billed) is putting the finishing touches on a story “outing” Oscar’s wife Erica (Vera Farmiga) as a CIA agent. She’s assured by her editor, Bonnie Benjamin (Angela Bassett, revealing her versatility in a down-to-earth role far different from her incandescent performance as Tina Turner!), and the paper’s legal staff that the government will be upset with the story but they can handle it. To their shock, they find the legal process working at warp speed — within two days the President has appointed attorney Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon) as special prosecutor, and within a week — despite the paper’s retention of renowned First Amendment attorney Alan Burnside (Alan Alda) to represent her — the government has thrown Rachel in jail and Dubois announced that she’s going to stay there until she reveals who was her original source for the story. From that point the film turns into a Kafka-esque nightmare, as Rachel stays in jail almost a full year and loses her husband Ray (David Schwimmer) and their son Timmy (Preston Bailey) — he takes up with another woman and sues for, and wins, custody of him.

There isn’t quite as much depiction of the culture shock of an upper-middle-class WASP in jail with prostitutes and other female lowlifes as I would have expected from the plot premise, but the film is utterly gripping and manages to make genuinely tragic figures of both Rachel and Erica, whose life is also ruined, as well as evoking great performances not only from the women but also from Dillon, who’s lost his old “Brat Pack” standing but matured as an actor as well as a person. He was the one bright spot in the otherwise unwatchable Factotum and he shines equally here, in a very different role in a much better movie. Dillon plays his character’s self-righteousness to a “T,” and if there’s a flaw in the film it’s that Lurie didn’t give him more to work with — Dillon sought to portray the character in a heroic light, since that’s his image of himself, and he does that quite well even though handicapped by a script that makes clear what side of the fence Lurie is on in the conflict between the First Amendment and “national security” at the heart of the film.

It occurred to me that Lurie may have drawn his plot as much from Susan McDougal (the estranged wife of Whitewater promoter Jim McDougal), who spent two years in federal custody after refusing to testify before the grand jury called by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr to investigate Bill Clinton) as from Judith Miller (who only served 85 days before her source released her from her obligation to keep his identity confidential). Perhaps this movie moved me as much as it did because of my personal connections with it — not only did I see McDougal on her book tour and read her memoir, but I personally knew David Agranoff when he was refusing to testify before a grand jury and was put in jail (and I wrote a letter to the judge on his behalf expressing my personal knowledge of him and his principled refusal to cooperate with grand jury investigations, period — the point was important because judges are not allowed to use the federal contempt power to punish people for refusing to testify to a grand jury; they’re only allowed to put them in custody in order to get them to testify, and if the judge becomes convinced that no amount of jail time will persuade the person to testify, s/he must order them released — a legal point that becomes a plot point in the movie).

Throughout the film Lurie not only maintains our interest in his plot, but he keeps us in genuine suspense and he makes us identify with his characters — a seemingly rare trait in a modern film, given that today’s moviemaking world is seemingly filled with writers and directors who think they’re being “cool” by depicting their characters dispassionately, as if they were lab rats in a maze, and avoiding building any audience identification with them. What’s more, his movie also is one of the most intriguing depictions of how small a town Washington, D.C. (“played” in this movie by Memphis, Tennessee) really is; the reporter and the woman she “outs” as a CIA agent don’t know each other per se but they both have kids in the same school, and there are other intriguing clashes between the characters’ social contacts with each other and their official roles. Nothing But the Truth was apparently kept from a theatrical release by the recession, which forced its initial distributor, Yari Productions, into bankruptcy — a real pity, since it’s so much better than any other film inspired by the “war on terror” I’ve seen; it avoids the insanely melodramatic plot complications of Lions for Lambs and Rendition (not to mention the God-awful Duplicity!) and is moving and supremely watchable start-to-finish in a way I don’t expect from a recent film!