Monday, June 8, 2009

Dependent On The Weather

Briefly released in a few theaters last December, then left for dead when distributor The Yari Film Group went bankrupt, writer/director Rod Lurie’s NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH is out on DVD now where hopefully people will get the chance to discover it. Essentially a newspaper movie—remember newspapers? I think we used to have a pretty good one here in L.A.—it takes a recent real-world scandal as the jumping-off point and then goes chooses to go off in a direction of its own making. It also tries to confront full-on the idea that a truly free press is not only in danger in this day and age, it has almost been made out to be the enemy. It’s not without a few flaws, but it’s definitely worth a look.

So obviously inspired by the Valerie Plame/Judith Miller scandal that a disclaimer is used at the very beginning, the film stars Kate Beckinsale as Rachel Armstrong, DC reporter for the “Capital Sun-Times” who writes a piece naming Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga), also the mother of one of the children at her son’s private school, as a covert CIA operative linked who was critical about the administration’s handling of a presidential investigation that linked a recent assassination attempt to Venezuela. No sooner has the article hit newsstands before federal prosecutor Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon with a slight southern accent) attempts to get her to divulge her source. When Armstrong unequivocally refuses to reveal the name on the stand and is jailed for contempt, hotshot lawyer Alan Burnside (Alan Alda) fights to get her released and though she has been taken away from her son and husband Ray (David Schwimmer) it soon becomes clear that Armstrong isn’t going to give up what she believes in so easily.

Lurie’s THE CONTENDER, released way back in 2000, was a film that managed to state some serious themes while still being just trashy enough that it resembled a potboiler you could read on an airplane (Jeff Bridges musing, “I was just thinking what I’d pay to be back in college again,” is one of my favorite moments of his entire career). NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH, for the most part, dispenses with the more enjoyable eccentricities that categorized that effort and the casting isn’t as strong but in a number of ways it’s a defiantly earnest attempt to address the nature of the press, specifically print journalism, in our world today and its relationship to the government. The focus is on the women in the story much like THE CONTENDER and Lurie’s busted TV series COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF, but instead of dealing with sexual politics the film is really about the nature of confidentiality, the price of a free press in a democracy and why that free press is required if the democracy will survive. The obviously low budget is apparent—the D.C.-set film shot mostly in Tennessee, I’m guessing due to some kind of tax exemption deal, and the lack of a sense of place is sometimes felt. As if to compensate, Lurie strives to make this film more about the people in front of the cameras as opposed to showing off Washington landmarks. Even with much of it presented in mostly close and medium shots you can feel him working overtime to make it somehow cinematic. This past spring’s STATE OF PLAY, which I liked with reservations, obviously had more money and verisimilitude to play with but something in this films’s newspaper DNA still felt more real to me. Both are very much about the end of print journalism that we’re going through these days, but while STATE OF PLAY takes a more melancholy, romantic approach to the subject, NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH goes a step further by choosing to address the possibility that the end of print will lead to real, actual journalists becoming irrelevant and, even worse, vilified as the bad guys by certain people. The conflict with Venezuela and how it is linked to Van Doren is meant to be mostly background (that country here is clearly meant to represent Iraq, but that’s all there is to really say about it) which is fine, but I still wish that there were a little more flavor to the film of D.C. and the various political sides that swirl around everywhere in that town. The “Capital Sun-Times” isn’t a very convincing substitute for the Washington Post (lengthy aside: I know that legally there isn’t much that can be done about it but I usually find fake newspapers in film to be distracting more often than not. So much attention will be paid to detail but then we’ll get a reference to the “Wall Street Chronicle” in WALL STREET and it throws us out of things for a minute. I have no problem with fake papers in superhero movies, though. End of lengthy aside) and, as it is, the multiple appearances of MSNBC reporter Dan Abrams seen on TV is one of the biggest indications of a world going on outside of the scope of the film—it would be nice if there were more of this sort of thing, but what there is does help. Even though the film spends a lot of time going over the specifics of what is happening, I still couldn’t help but wonder if what happens would really go so far in real life—is this my own naiveté speaking?--but to his credit Lurie never lets things get dull and he keeps the story moving forward in unpredictable ways. At first I thought that maybe the narrative should have been more of a parallel track between the two women as opposed to emphasizing Beckinsale but even this feeling was answered by the movie by a certain point and the script wisely holds back from revealing the true nature of some of the characters too soon. The unexpected ending causes us to reexamine certain things we’ve seen and though some people may reject the film because of these revelations, without going into any details I’ll just say that I’m fine with it.

Beckinsale does a good job in a difficult role that, until the very end, is designed to keep us from being clued into everything she’s thinking. The Kate Beckinsale that appeared in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is, sadly, long gone in favor of appearing in garbage like PEARL HARBOR and VAN HELSING which has made me flinch a little whenever I see that she’s in a film. Taking this role doesn’t make up for those movies—nothing will ever make up for VAN HELSING--but at least it’s a step in the right direction and she does some admirable work here. Either way she’s overshadowed by the amazing Vera Farmiga, close to brilliant in the supporting role of the CIA agent whose cover has been blown and just makes me wish that the actress would be seen more often. Based on this film, I think I could gladly listen to her do nothing but curse for hours on end. Alan Alda is also terrific as well, given some of the best dialogue which is more like some of the juicy character stuff that was in THE CONTENDER (early talk of clothes promises to become as prominent as all the discussion about food in the earlier film, but it never quite happens) and nailing every beat along the way, while still keeping things unpredictable as to which direction they’re going to ultimately go with him. The bulk of the ensemble has the feeling of being good but not great and there’s the feeling that in a few cases we’re looking at the second or third choices but I’ll give Dillon, Angela Basset and Noah Wyle credit for wanting to take such roles in a film like this and, in fairness, David Schwimmer of all people is particularly good as Beckinsale’s husband.

Displaying consistent intelligence in its storytelling, NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH is good enough that its flaws may seem less important in the long run. It has an incisive, unpredictable script that provides a pair of excellent leading roles for women and valuable commentary on the slow death of newspapers which cuts to the heart of the matter better than some op-eds that I’ve seen recently on the subject. The D.C. world of journalism is something that my sister knows much better than I do and if I can ever convince her to check this film out I’ll be curious to hear what she has to say. The lack of a real theatrical release for NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH was due to unfortunate circumstances more than anything else and, though it isn’t perfect, the film deserves better than to be buried in the DVD cemetery.


Nostalgia Kinky said...

Nice article Peel and I think you nailed my thoughts on the film. On Beckinsale, I think she knows she messed up as well and I see this and Snow Angels (which she is even better in) as a real major step by her to get back to her roots as a solid actor, and away from the junk she ended up in...I hope she continues in this direction because I really loved her early on before the dreaded blockbusters you mentioned happened.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks Jeremy, glad you liked it. I haven't seen SNOW ANGELS but I hope she continues to appear in more movies like this. With a few of the other titles I'm sure she was choosing things that had the potential to be blockbusters--not to mention the paydays--but almost always she managed to choose some of the worst films of the past ten years. It made me slightly hostile to the idea of seeing her in any kind of movie and I'll be very glad if that's no longer going to be the case. I'm definitely looking forward to the Criterion DVD of LAST DAYS OF DISCO in a few months.

Lisa Jane Persky said...

Just FYI, "Nothing but The Truth" was the original title of "The Big Easy".
The movie was to have taken place in Chicago but McBride wanted to make it in New Orleans--so he did.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


That's amazing to learn about the title, what a weird coincidence! And I can't picture THE BIG EASY taking place anywhere else--I doubt anyone who's seen it could--so I'm very glad that change was made. A very cool thing to find out about it, thanks very much!