The plot for Nothing But the Truth, writer-director Rod Lurie’s excellent parable of our power-mad post-9/11 government, takes its cue from the outing of Valerie Plame, the C.I.A. operative whose cover was blown in a 2003 Washington Post that touched off a furor over whether the Bush Administration wasn’t motivated by revenge against Plame’s husband, a U.S. ambassador who contradicted the government’s claim that Saddam Hussein was building WMD. Replace Iraq with Venezuela and WMD with an attempted assassination of the U.S. President and you’ve got the scenario behind Lurie’s dynamite bit of political fiction.
The film starts off, literally, with a bang as the president survives an assassination attempt. The ruling administration declares the plotters to be from Venezuela and promptly begins bombing that country, but when reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale) publishes an article suggesting the Venezuelan link is bogus, she raises hackles, not least because she cites Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga) as the C.I.A. operative and policy contrarian. The government—spoiling to smack down the press—sends in Federal Prosecutor Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon), who demands to know who it was that tipped Armstrong off about Van Doren’s identity. But Armstrong refuses to reveal her source, and so the court charges her with contempt, sending her to jail until she decides to fess up, while her defense attorney Alan Burnside (Alan Alda, working his typically wry, avuncular charm) and her editorial superiors (Angela Bassett and Noah Wyle) try to stave off the worst legal consequences for both Armstrong and her embattled newspaper.
Lurie tracks the heavy toll that Armstrong, her family, Van Doren, and the country, by extension, pay to defend not just journalists’ code of honor but the rights of free citizens to hold truth above authority. Armstrong’s gutsy crusade alienates her from her husband, Ray (David Schwimmer), whose actions render him the film’s moral weakling, and their son, while she endures the deprivation (not to mention, the shit-kicking) of the lockup. Defending Armstrong at a Supreme Court hearing, Burnside spells out what it would mean to the credibility of the free press if Armstrong lost her case. The scene veers dangerously close to the didactic, but its implications are chilling and eloquent. Burnside’s speech becomes the film’s polemical backbone, and works to steel our support for Armstrong’s cause.
Among the many achievements in Lurie’s script is how it manages to swing the viewer’s sympathies toward Armstrong. At first, viewers may find her an upstart, ready to throw whosoever under the bus of her career ambition—and the price that Van Doren pays for being outed by Armstrong is indeed steep. As determined as Armstrong is, Beckinsale is also sure to convey the character’s terror and her desperation to keep ties with her son and with the outside world. It’s that mix of vulnerability and inner conviction not to yield to government pressure that wins us over. Both Armstrong and Van Doren are rock-solid, well-drawn characters who we admire equally for walking their talk, though they’re at cross purposes with each other.
The film easily could have gotten saddled with liberal polemics and pedestrian plot twists, but Lurie’s focus is on lean, intelligent storytelling while keeping his righteous anger worked seamlessly into plotting and character development. Sarah Boyd’s superb editing keeps apace with the taut, compelling script, and the performers are no slouches either. After years shunting between various genre vehicles, Beckinsale proves her chops as a serious dramatic actress. Dillon and Alda are dependably strong, while Bassett, Wyle, Farmiga, and Schwimmer provide sharp support. All combine to create a worthy political thriller whose good intentions don’t spoil the pleasures of a good yarn well told.