Nothing But the Truth

The political drama has a good friend in Rod Lurie, who makes intelligent, earnestly liberal movies that are meaty and watchable, if not always great. He has a thing for strong female protagonists, too. He was first noticed for “The Contender,” about a female vice-presidential candidate being grilled about her past, and he created the lady-president TV drama “Commander in Chief” for ABC. His latest, a spiritual sister to “The Contender,” is the arbitrarily titled “Nothing But the Truth,” in which thorny ethical dilemmas once again mess up the life of a woman.

She is Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale), a Washington D.C. newspaper reporter who learns that America’s recent missile strike against Venezuela may have been unjustified. It was done in retaliation for that country’s supposed involvement in an assassination attempt against the U.S. president, but Rachel has learned that a CIA agent filed a report indicating Venezuela was not to blame — a report that the president ignored, ordering the military strike anyway.

Rachel’s news story makes waves in Washington, not just for its damning evidence against the president, but for outing the CIA agent who made the report. She is Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga), the wife of an ambassador and supposedly just an ordinary soccer mom. Her undercover profession as a government spy is over now, of course; nobody wants a spy whose name has been plastered all over the news.

Now the question is which high-level government employee leaked Erica’s identity to the press? A special prosecutor named Dubois (Matt Dillon) is appointed to find out; Rachel refuses to reveal her sources; Rachel is held in contempt of court and sent to jail; stubbornness and principle-upholding ensue.

It might be impossible to make a film like this without resorting to some pontificating and speechifying, but Lurie (who wrote the screenplay, too) keeps it to a minimum. Most of the heated conversations — between Rachel’s crackerjack lawyer (Alan Alda) and various judges, between Rachel and her supportive editor (Angela Bassett), between Rachel and her less-than-supportive husband (David Schwimmer) — are intense without going over the top. I cringed only a couple times, including the moment when Erica confronts Rachel about her story and says, “You are an unpatriotic little c***, and you’re gonna walk right off the plank into the bowels of hell.” There might be no way of delivering that line without it sounding campy.

The film was clearly inspired by the Valerie Plame case from a few years ago, with parallels close enough that Lurie (or Lurie’s lawyers) felt it necessary to put a this-is-fictional-we-promise disclaimer at the beginning of it. The similarities dissolve about two-thirds of the way through, when Lurie has to introduce some purely fictional events for storytelling purposes: raise the stakes, intensify the drama, etc. It’s a smart choice, as it gives Beckinsale — who’s terrific as the dogmatically principled Rachel Armstrong — more opportunities to express the character’s self-doubt and personal torment.

Alan Alda, who is one of the most instantly likable people in show business, was a great choice to play Alan Burnside, Rachel’s shrewd and well-paid attorney. Burnside’s appearance before the Supreme Court may not be very realistic (things like that are pointed out to you when you watch movies with friends who are lawyers), but Alda’s performance is passionate, somehow coming across as both immensely self-confident and humble. Matt Dillon and Noah Wyle, who plays the newspaper’s attorney, are suitably serious and intense, too, in what is otherwise a female-driven film.

It’s no accident that both people at the center of the controversy are women, and Erica and Rachel each have moments of righteous indignation over the treatment they get. Erica’s comes when her CIA handlers badger her about whether she leaked her own identity — hey, maybe even accidentally, maybe while she was drunk, or in bed with someone, heh heh. Surely, she points out, the Agency would not jump immediately to the conclusion that she’s an incompetent spy or a slutty alcoholic if she were a man.

Still, for all its strengths, “Nothing But the Truth” falls under the umbrella of good but not great. Lurie might be too headstrong, with ideas that are loftier and more advanced than his ability to express them. It takes great skill to address political and ethical matters without getting preachy, and Lurie has not quite mastered that. But you can overlook an occasional soapbox moment or clunky speech when it’s contained in a thoughtful, mature drama like this one.

B (1 hr., 45 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, brief violence .)