By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007
MEMPHIS -- What Hollywood is calling "the Judith Miller movie" is now filming on location here, but prepare yourselves: Some changes are being made to the story inspired by the outing of a CIA agent.
For starters, in the movie Judith Miller is no longer Judith Miller of the New York Times, but Rachel Armstrong of the Washington Capital Sun. And while the real Judith Miller may be remembered as a stylish, slightly scary reporter of 59, headed off to jail in a quilted black jacket and tortoise-frame sunglasses, in the movie she is a sizzling Kate Beckinsale, 34, dressed in a, shall we say, form-fitting skirt.
Trust us, if this Rachel Armstrong had asked I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby how to spell Valerie Plame's name, he would have taken pen in hand. (Miller famously wrote in her notebook "Valerie Flame.")
"People could say Kate is too good-looking to be a reporter," admits Rod Lurie, the writer and director of the independently financed film.
On Friday in Memphis, which through movie magic is transformed into Washington, D.C., the crew was shooting a scene in the newsroom of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Armstrong has just returned to her newspaper, shaken, from a grilling by a politically ambitious special prosecutor who wants her secret source, dammit. "I won't give it to them," Beckinsale's character says, a prop muffin in her hands, her lip trembling ever so slightly. "No way."
With this scandal, a director could have gone either way: comedy or drama. Lurie goes with a fast-paced drama, a thriller about the First Amendment and motherhood, as he raises the stakes by making both the spy and the journalist moms with young children. So the spy is fearful not only for her job, but for her family's safety, and when Beckinsale gets sent off to the slammer she leaves little Timmy behind -- for 18 months. (In real life, Miller did 85 days.)
In the movie -- surprise! -- journalists are good, decent, honest and somewhat retro. Like Robert Redford in "All the President's Men," which is one of Lurie's favorite films. Rachel/Kate is a crusading investigative reporter, says Lurie, a former entertainment journalist, "and we do put journalism in a favorable light." (Lurie previously directed "The Contender" with Joan Allen and was the executive producer of the TV show "Commander in Chief" with Geena Davis.)
How would Beckinsale describe her character? "She's a working mom. Her marriage is in a lull. Her husband is a novelist, and there are issues of professional jealousy. And this is the biggest story of her career," says Beckinsale between scenes, in a slight British accent that she loses to play Armstrong. "I think, yes, she is a good journalist," and here Beckinsale gives us a throaty laugh, "given that I've always seen you people as the enemy."
You people. By which Beckinsale certainly is not referring to journalists' vital role as the counterbalance to the overreaching powers of the state. Nope, she means movie reviewers. (Beckinsale has appeared in several vampire films, such as "Van Helsing," so she is pretty familiar with what critics do for a living.)
While the movie is only "inspired by" the Libby leak, Beckinsale did meet for lunch with the real Judith Miller, who left the New York Times and is now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and continues to write about national security. The actress described Miller as "elegant, candid, bright, extremely pretty" and more "delicate" than she expected. Beckinsale called the lunch "wonderful" but also a little "weird," because though the movie is not a documentary, audiences will confuse reality and art, and "she knows this and I know this, so okay, we just wanted to give each other a sniff." They talked about Miller's time in jail. Miller, who has no business connection with the movie, did not return an e-mail and phone call from The Washington Post.
The movie is currently called "Nothing but the Truth," as opposed to, say, Valerie Plame Wilson's recently published memoir, which is called "Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House," or her husband Joseph Wilson's book, "The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity: A Diplomat's Memoir."
In real life, the Plame/Libby/Miller affair was a little confusing -- ethically, journalistically, narratively. The film version is both slimmed down and pumped up. "The film derives from real events, as you can see," explains Lurie, sitting in his trailer between scenes, "but then it goes off on its own direction.
"It's a jumping-off point."
While the movie is still being filmed, and many elements could change or end up on the cutting-room floor, the basic outline is this: A modern-day fictional president is almost assassinated, and the finger is pointed at Venezuela. In the course of her diligent reporting, and without revealing her source (and our lips are vacuum-sealed), Beckinsale outs Erica Van Doren as a CIA agent pretending to be a mere soccer mom. She's married to the former ambassador to Great Britain, who's an outspoken critic of the fictional administration. (Any resemblance to Joe Wilson is purely intentional.)
In Hollywood, everybody gets an injection of youth. So in the movie the outed spook is played by Vera Farmiga, 34, whose breakout role was in last year's "The Departed." Her ambassador husband is played by Jamey Sheridan of the TV show "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." From a brief snippet of unedited film, we can tell you that Farmiga plays her spy as one tough cookie who is fluent in profanity. She accuses Rachel Armstrong of being "a toady for the administration." The Judith Miller character also gets a husband, a professional novelist (he writes thrillers about the Mossad) played by David Schwimmer, formerly of "Friends."
In the role of special prosecutor Patton Dubois, a character Lurie says is modeled after the real Libby prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Lurie chose actor Matt Dillon.
In a scene filmed Friday, the newspaper's in-house counsel, Avril Aaronson, played by Noah Wyle ("ER"), remarks that the appointment of a special prosecutor is not good news for the paper. "Unlimited time, unlimited moola and unlimited publicity," warns Wyle, who in a later scene ticks off the prosecutor's r¿sum¿ -- U.S. attorney in Northern Michigan, lead prosecutor on the embassy bombing case in Nairobi -- and says, "He's been the next big thing for a while now. . . . He's hot stuff and wants to run for office."
For his part, Wyle sat down with constitutional law expert and professor Floyd Abrams, who argued for Miller and the New York Times in the leak case. Abrams is serving as a technical adviser on the film and will play the role of a judge. They talked First Amendment and Abrams's recollections of what Miller went through. "In my little circle in California," Wyle says, "she wasn't exactly the symbol of the bastion of free expression. . . . She was more the apologist for the administration." But Wyle says the film doesn't really go there.
Starring in the role of the boss (a.k.a. Bill Keller of the New York Times) is Angela Bassett as Bonnie Benjamin, editor in chief of the Capital Sun, who tells Rachel in one scene, "If you want to go to war, we're behind you," meaning, of course, not the war in Iraq, but the war against the special prosecutor.
Then she utters these immortal words: "The paper will pay your legal fees to the end."