Friday, December 26, 2008
Careful what you wish for
By Edward Copeland
During the numerous interviews writer-director Rod Lurie has given promoting his movie Nothing But the Truth, he talks about how much he likes films (his own and others) that provoke thought and discussion once the movie is over. This proves deadly for his own film because the more you examine it in retrospect, the more it falls apart.
If Nothing But the Truth were an episode of Law & Order, it would inevitably carry the teaser "Ripped From the Headlines" in its previews. Based loosely on the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame as retaliation for her husband's column disputing part of the Bush Administration's case for the Iraq war, Lurie's film focuses on the idea of reporters defending their sources, in this case Kate Beckinsale who, like the real-life Judith Miller, goes to jail to protect her source.
Lurie changes his story so much for the purpose of twists and to preserve its status as fiction that he ends up undermining his mission: the need for a federal shield law for journalists. From this point on in the review, to really go into detail about how he botches the job so badly, I'm going to have reveal pretty much every twist in the film, so this is your:
OK, you can't say you haven't been warned so now I'm delving into the plot in detail.
First, a brief primer on the real life Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame case, for those who have forgotten and for those who never knew. Joe Wilson was a former ambassador dispatched to check out claims that Saddam Hussein sought uranium from the African country of Niger. Wilson came back and reported there was nothing to back up the claims. The Bush Administration ignored his report and perpetuated the myth for their own ends anyway.
Later, Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times saying that he found no proof of the claim. Soon after, it was revealed in a Robert Novak column that Wilson's wife was Valerie Plame, a CIA operative. The CIA demanded that the Justice Department launch an investigation since the outing of a CIA operative's identity is a crime. Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed special counsel and pursued the leak, not only to Novak but to a subsequent story in Time magazine and to Judith Miller, who ironically never even wrote about Valerie Plame but went to jail to protect her source.
In the version in Nothing But the Truth, there is an assassination attempt made on the president. The attack is used as a pretense for the U.S. to launch a war against Venezuela. A noted administration critic later writes an op-ed revealing that the administration had been given an intelligence report finding no link between Venezuela and the assassination attempt.
Reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale) learns that the writer's wife is Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga), the CIA operative who filed the report on Venezuela. Rachel and her editors are excited when she nails down further confirmation and believe Rachel will win a Pulitzer Prize for her story.
Let's stop here to examine what's wrong with all of this to this point. Now, if Erica's buried report that her husband revealed in his article (without her permission, we learn) were the subject of Rachel's story, I see the scoop, but is it jaw-dropping journalism to write a story that a thorn in a president's side is married to a CIA agent? Further, since the CIA certainly was aware of who Erica was married to, wouldn't she have been in a shitload of trouble for letting her husband either accidentally or on purpose know the details of an intelligence report and publish it?
Soon, a special counsel (Matt Dillon) is appointed and the heat begins to be put on Rachel to cough up the name of her source. Her paper stands behind her, despite their weaselly counselor (Noah Wyle) and they secure a high-powered defense attorney (Alan Alda) for Rachel. Alda, in fact, pretty much plays the only sympathetic male character in the film.
Beckinsale and especially Farmiga are very good but part of that is because the deck is so unfairly stacked against everyone in the film with a y chromosome. Dillon is supposed to be part charmer, part barracuda, but he really only comes across as an asshole. Erica's husband, the Joe Wilson equivalent, barely has any lines and inexplicably leaves his wife and takes his daughter when the newspaper outs her.
David Schwimmer plays Rachel's novelist husband, who starts out as a good guy but turns adulterer soon after his wife goes to jail because he needs to get laid regularly, First Amendment be damned. What really requires a special counsel investigation is the disappearance and reappearance of Schwimmer's facial hair throughout the film.
Of course, the ultimate point of Lurie's film is that journalists should be able to protect their sources so they can keep government in check, etc. However, that is undermined by the final twist, when we learn who Rachel's first source was. See, Erica and Rachel's kids go to the same school, though their moms never knew each other. On a field trip, Erica's young daughter inadvertently reveals who her father is, that her parents argued over something to do with her work and that mom is a spy.
First, would a reporter go this far when her story was launched with the help of a grade school student? Second, the special prosecutor repeatedly says that any government official who outs a CIA agent has committed a crime. Wouldn't this all have been over quickly if Rachel had told him and the court her source was not a government official? Hell, why wouldn't she give up the kid? Was she afraid of being embarrassed? Did she hope to get more scoops out of the kid? (Perhaps give her the code name Deep SquarePants.) Did she think they'd try to send a kid to jail? How much taxpayer money was wasted on this silliness?
A really good movie should be made about the need for a federal shield law, but Lurie seemed more attracted to tricks than truth. Beckinsale is good and Farmiga is very good, buy they deserved a better vehicle.