The story of a journalist willing to go to prison to defend her right to protect her source on an explosive story, “Nothing But the Truth” itself resembles a workmanlike piece of journalism motivated by an outraged sense of injustice. Competently constructed and nicely acted by Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga, Rod Lurie’s second femme-centric political meller, after “The Contender,” takes a similarly critical stand on the abuse of power, but its one-track mind and prosaic approach make the film as laborious as the case is interesting. Moderate B.O. would seem the best that can be expected for this Yari Film Group release.
Opening startlingly with an assassination attempt on the U.S. president, pic proposes a scenario in which the government launches a military attack on Venezuela, based on evidence that its unnamed leader was behind the plot. In a blockbuster story that puts the administration on the defensive, ace Capitol Sun-Times political reporter Rachel Armstrong (Beckinsale) outs Erica Van Doren (Farmiga) as a covert CIA op who went to Venezuela and reported back that the South American country did not instigate the attempt on the president’s life.
Erica, whose husband just happens to have been ambassador to Venezuela but who resigned in disagreement with the administration, is furious about her cover having been blown, but not as furious as the government, which assigns a special prosecutor, Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon), to convince Rachel to name her source. But nothing will make her budge and she eventually lands in jail for contempt of court.
The days she spends behind bars — in a brightly lit common room with dozens of other women — are counted off by onscreen titles, as the government waits for Rachel to cave. With the might of the government on one side and Rachel backed by her newspaper and high-toned attorney Albert Burnside (Alan Alda), the case comes down to differing views of what’s at stake: Is it a First Ammendment issue, as Rachel maintains, or a matter in which national security takes precedence?
As is duly noted, a previous U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled, by 5-4, in favor of the latter view, and Burnside takes this one all the way to the Supreme Court as well. When all is said and done, one thing the film does expertly is keep you from guessing the identity of the original source; it’s not a cheat, as the person has been easily seen onscreen, but a viewer would have to be extremely on the ball to figure it out.
Lurie works through the case in mechanical fashion, but the context he provides emphasizes the personal cost of standing up for fiercely felt principles. Rachel and Erica are both soccer moms with kids in the same class, and both pay a dear price for their deep professional engagement. As time goes on, many people try to convince Rachel to throw in the towel, but she just won’t do it.
Beckinsale does a good job conveying this toughness of character. There are several opportunities for Rachel to break down and cry, especially over the perennially and cruelly extended period she’s forced to be away from her young son — after a disturbing initial visit, she refuses to allow her husband (David Schwimmer) to expose their boy to an incarcerated mother. When she’s about to be interviewed by a Barbara Walters-like personality, she’s warned not to let the woman make her cry, and she doesn’t. Lurie’s avoidance of the pat, heart-tugging moments is admirable, and his writing of the cutting exchanges between Rachel and Erica is particularly good.
Farmiga burns through her role as the loyal CIA agent scorned. Dillon applies a folksy veneer to his prosecutor’s hardball game, and Alda is smooth as the most experienced player on the field.
Although the specifics of the case are fictional, the film is unquestionably part of the zeitgeist as an anti-Bush administration film by virtue of its highlighting of the threats to civil liberties in the name of national security.
Memphis, Tenn., and surroundings do a reasonable job of standing in for the nation’s capital.