By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Every once in a while, for reasons as random as a Hollywood executive's taste or an economic meltdown, a perfectly decent movie slips through the cracks, never receives a theatrical release and is relegated to the purgatory called straight-to-DVD.
Some worthwhile cinematic gems have experienced such a fate (see "Idiocracy" and "SherryBaby"), and today we can add another one to the list. "Nothing but the Truth," a taut political thriller, takes some cues from recent events, adds a dash of over-the-top melodrama and comes up with a crafty little pretzel of a movie, given added bite thanks to careermaking performances from Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga.
Beckinsale plays Rachel Armstrong, a reporter for the Capitol Sun-Times, the fictional paper-of-record in Washington. As "Nothing but the Truth" opens, the American president has been shot, the victim of an attempted assassination by the government of Venezuela, and has ordered an invasion of that country in retaliation. Armstrong discovers that a CIA operative named Erica Van Doren (Farmiga), who is married to a vocal critic of the administration, delivered a report to the White House rebutting the findings that Venezuelans were responsible. Armstrong writes an article outing Van Doren, setting in motion a series of life-altering and even fatal events, made all the more complicated by the fact that their kids are in the same class in elementary school.
"Nothing but the Truth" was written and directed by Rod Lurie, a former movie critic who has always had a penchant for speculative political fiction. His first movie, a short 1998 film called "4 Second Delay," imagined Watergate reporter Bob Woodward exposing Deep Throat during a radio call-in show that turns into a hostage negotiation. In 2000, Lurie made "The Contender," which starred Joan Allen as a U.S. senator caught up in allegations of past sexual shenanigans. In "Nothing but the Truth," Lurie once again sets his sights on sexual double standards, as Armstrong and Van Doren navigate complicated and often competing roles as wives, mothers and hard-driving trailblazers in stubbornly male-dominated professions.
Viewers will no doubt see "Nothing but the Truth" as a barely fictionalized portrait of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was imprisoned for her refusal to testify before a grand jury investigating the public disclosure of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. But they're well advised to try to forget those real-world echoes and enjoy the movie for what it is: a smart, occasionally funny combination of old-fashioned political thrillers in the tradition of John Frankenheimer with a touch of women-in-prison pulp worthy of Roger Corman. Political junkies will get a kick out of First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams playing the judge who jails Armstrong for contempt when she refuses to reveal her source. And everyone will get a kick out of Alan Alda, who plays Armstrong's sartorially obsessed attorney with sly relish. (Alda also has the movie's best lines. "Sometimes a mistake is wearing white after Labor Day," he warns a grasping special prosecutor played by Matt Dillon. "And sometimes a mistake is invading Russia in winter.")
Lurie has gotten better and better over the years, and with "Nothing but the Truth" he's made the best film of his career, winching the drama steadily tighter as the notion of power and its abuse becomes more murky. He stages a shocking mid-point murder with jolting, ruthless finesse.
But by far the most effective sequences of the film are those that feature Beckinsale and Farmiga going nose-to-nose as women trying (and failing) to find common ground. Although in many ways Lurie has created as conventional a Washington thriller as, say, "State of Play," if one turns the prism slightly it becomes as unabashedly lurid a mother-drama as "Mildred Pierce" and "Imitation of Life," in which women's ambitions were punished by having their families fall apart. The difference here is that Lurie has created female protagonists strong and self-aware enough to question sexism and hypocrisy. If it isn't entirely clear where the filmmaker's sympathies lie, he's nonetheless created two of the most fascinating female movie characters to hit screens in a long while, and they've been brought to life by two gifted actresses, each working at the top of her game.
Nothing but the Truth (108 minutes) is rated R for language, some sexual material and a scene of violence.