Ebertfest 2009: Nothing But the Truth (2008)

Director/Screenwriter: Rod Lurie

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

As I watched Nothing But the Truth with growing excitement, I thought, this is All the President’s Men for the new millennium. This film will inspire confidence in the press again and bring a whole new generation of idealists into journalism. Thank you, Rod Lurie, a thousand times thank you. And then I saw the last three minutes of the film. DAMN! DAMN, DAMN, DAMN!

Nothing But the Truth hasn’t opened yet, a victim of the economy, but it is expected to some time this year. I am going to talk about those final, horrible, three minutes, so consider this a warning of a major spoiler. If you think you might want to see this film, please stop when I get to the ending. In fact, the very best advice I can give anyone is go see this film, leave the film immediately after the scene in the gazebo, and don’t look back. That is where this film should have ended, and if you don’t see its current ending, you will be able to preserve a well-deserved admiration for the gigantic bulk of this film.

The screenplay, written by director and former film critic Rod Lurie, is loosely based by the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame by New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Miller refused to reveal her source and spent several months in jail. In this film, Kate Beckinsale plays reporter Rachel Armstrong, who learns that the mom of one of the children who attends her son Timmy’s (Preston Bailey) school, Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga), is an undercover CIA agent. Van Doren’s writer husband (Jamey Sheridan) has been critical of the government, and she herself produced a memo offering no evidence that the Venezuelan government was involved in the assassination attempt on fictional President Lyman (Scott Williamson) that opens the movie, thus failing to justify the government’s military incursion into that South American country.

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Rachel’s boss Bonnie Benjamin (Angela Bassett) decides, over the objections of the newspaper’s attorney, Avril Aronson (Noah Wyle), to run Rachel’s story. It is a federal crime to reveal the identity of a CIA agent, and Aronson worries about the paper’s and Rachel’s exposure to prosecution. Certainly, if Rachel refuses to name her source, she will be held in contempt of court. Both Rachel and Bonnie are prepared to stand firm. Before the story is published, Rachel gives Erica a heads up and a chance to comment on the record. Erica is furious and panicked at the same time. Of course, she denies she is a spy to Rachel, but she will have her own trouble with the agency, which, in trying to find the leak, will cast doubt on Erica herself and put her life at risk.

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When the newspaper arrives at the Armstrong home the next morning, Rachel’s husband Ray (David Schwimmer) is proud and tells her she’s going to get a Pulitzer for it. Her initial excitement is dampened when FBI agents pick her up as she drops Timmy off at school not 48 hours after the story breaks. Tough Special Prosecutor Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon) moves swiftly as a matter of national security to convene a grand jury to compel Rachel to reveal her source. White-shoe attorney Alan Burnside (Alan Alda) is engaged by the newspaper to defend her. Burnside isn’t worried; Judge Hall (Floyd Abrams) and he exchange Christmas cards, and he’s sure to grant a continuance so Burnside can prepare their defense. Wrong. When Rachel refuses to name her source, he charges her with contempt, and she is taken immediately into custody. So begins a long, painful odyssey that will see Rachel spend nearly a year in jail and her marriage teeter on the brink; Erica lose her marriage and career, and face physical violence; and both women lose touch with their children.

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All for a principle. The fact that Nothing But the Truth brings principles back into the public discussion is the first great thing it does. The way it does so is the other. Rachel is a bonafide hero, enduring separation from her beloved son and the recriminations of those who question her mother love as a result, learning that her husband couldn’t spend even a few months alone before stepping out with another woman, enduring the incremental loss of her humanity to the point where she takes a terrible beating over who gets the top bunk. All for the principle that the press must be a trusted court of last resort against the abuses of the powerful.

The script is terrific and incredibly smart. Bonnie tells Rachel that her case is fading from the public eye and advises her to do an interview with touchie-feelie media figure Molly Meyers (Angelica Tom). The first questions are of the “how do you feel” variety. Then Molly gets “real”: “I have to ask. Who was your source?” Rachel toughly counters, “Why do you have to ask? You said to me before we went on air that you were with me.” Molly, on the defensive, says, “We all could be in your shoes.” “I’m sorry,” Rachel says, “but you couldn’t ever be in my shoes because frankly, the FBI doesn’t care how you found out where Paris dined last night.” What an indictment of the empty calories infotainment reporters serve the audiences they have turned into junk news junkies. Another line I love is when Burnside says, “Sometimes a mistake is like wearing white after Labor Day, and sometimes a mistake is invading Russia in winter!”

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Perhaps the grandest moment is when Burnside presents Rachel’s case before the Supreme Court:

In 1972 in Branzburg v. Hayes this Court ruled against the right of reporters to withhold the names of their sources before a grand jury, and it gave the power to the government to imprison those reporters who did. It was a 5-4 decision, close. In his dissent in Branzburg, Justice Stewart said, ‘As the years pass, the power of government becomes more and more pervasive. Those in power,’ he said, ‘whatever their politics, want only to perpetuate it, and the people are the victims.’ Well, the years have passed, and that power is pervasive. Mrs. Armstrong could have buckled to the demands of the government. She could’ve abandoned her promise of confidentiality. She could’ve simply gone home to her family. But to do so would mean that no source would ever speak to her again, and no source would ever speak to her newspaper again. And then tomorrow, when we lock up journalists from other newspapers, we’ll make those publications irrelevant as well, and thus we’ll make the First Amendment irrelevant. And then how will we know if a President has covered up crimes or if an army officer has condoned torture? We as a nation will no longer be able to hold those in power accountable to those whom they have power over, and what then is the nature of government when it has no fear of accountability? We should shudder at the thought. Imprisoning journalists: that’s for other countries, that’s for countries who fear their citizens, not countries that cherish and protect them. Some time ago, I began to feel the personal, human pressure on Rachel Armstrong, and I told her that I was there to represent her and not her principle. And it was not until I met her that I realized that with great people, there’s no difference between principle and the person.

This isn’t even a little corny. This is something many people, including me, believe passionately.

Judge Hall eventually frees Rachel, convinced that further incarceration will have no effect on her resolve. Dubois is furious that Hall is letting a criminal go, but in fact, Rachel committed no crime under Hall’s jurisdiction. As she is being driven away from jail, she is stopped and arrested for criminal obstruction of justice, a charge for which she accepts a plea bargain. Rachel says good-bye to her son under a gazebo at a public park before beginning to serve her 2-year prison term. And then the entire film is cheapened, nearly destroyed, by the final reveal of the original source for Rachel’s story.

BIG SPOILER: In a flashback, Rachel is on a school bus with Timmy’s class. She has changed seats with a boy who has been harassing a little girl, and begins writing on her laptop. The little girl turns out to be Erica’s daughter Allison (Kristen Bough), and Allison asks Erica what she does. She says she writes for a newspaper. Then Allison says her daddy is a writer, but that her mommy argues with him about what he puts in his stories, things about mommy’s work. Having just read Van Doren’s spy novel, Rachel puts two and two together and asks Allison if her mommy was in Venezuela. “Yes, but don’t tell anyone I told you,” Allison says. “You bet,” Rachel agrees.

I asked my colleague, media critic Steve Rhodes, about whether Allison could be considered a source or a lead. Here’s what he said:

Wow, I can’t believe that ending! I think you got it right at the end – that would be a lead, not a confirmation. Who knows what goes on in the imagination of a five-year-old. Plus, you don’t make confidentiality agreements with five-year-olds, who do not have the understanding of what they are involved in. Now, is that an agreement you have to uphold? . . . My instinct is to say she shouldn’t give up a source, but she never should have made a ‘deal’ with a five-year-old, and I hate the fact that the movie used that gimmick to make its point. It makes me forget that the point is to not give up a source; instead, I feel like a five-year-old isn’t a legitimate source in the first place.

I must say, I agree. I and many of my fellow moviegoers felt cheated, as though the film decided to be about how Rachel is all woman for protecting a child from, from what exactly? Her mother exactly. While Erica might have been fired for discussing her work at home, Allison certainly wouldn’t have been in danger of prosecution. The film subtly reinforces the importance of mother love over journalistic ethics and the public’s right to know and, thus, becomes a reactionary film in the end. END SPOILER.

All of the performances are great, with special kudos to Matt Dillon who played the fictional version of every Illinoisan’s hero, Patrick Fitzgerald, and Vera Farmiga, whose fierce, complex performance as Erica Van Doren was a real tour de force. Kate Beckinsale was a solid anchor for this film, building admiration and sympathy as she showed her fear and rage, but still wouldn’t buckle. Remember, leave after the gazebo scene and bask in the intelligence and glory that this film really offers.

  • Rod spoke:
    27th/04/2009 to 7:55 am

    Frankly, I think Lurie’s a facetious wannabe auteur whose films always start off promisingly and turn to merde at the end because of his fondness of stunts. Deterrence is the worst offender, but this sounds true to form. Still, props for his sense of movie history: Lyman is the name of the President in Seven Days in May.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/04/2009 to 8:47 am

    This is my first Lurie film, and I’ll take your word for it. It’s a real shame. He seems to be a really good writer, but with too much commercial gimmickry mucking up his stories.

  • Fred spoke:
    27th/04/2009 to 1:43 pm

    Actually, the Lyman thing is a coincidence. The truth is that lyman was the name of the actor that played the President in Lurie’s Tv show commander in chief. And that president was President Bridges named after Jeff Bridges from The Contender.
    I think the ending of Nothing But The Truth is very brave. At the very least, that’s what everybody talks about. It should be noted that, yes, the girl is just a lead. But she did make a promise on the spur of the moment and insists on sticking by that promise. It’s a damn good film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/04/2009 to 1:54 pm

    Fred – The ending is, with respect, garbage and undermines the entire film. While I’ll agree that the idea of keeping a promise to a child in this context seems provocative and worth thinking about, the ending would only have worked had Rachel been less than saintly. Then we could say she was covering her ass, not protecting a source, because she was so ambitious she didn’t want to reveal how flimsy her original source was. That might have killed the story. However, since Lurie was the director as well as the writer, I have to assume that he wanted Rachel to come off like Joan of Arc. There is no way any self-respecting journalist would have made a deal like that, or even a conscientious mother. The good parents I know say they can’t make a promise until they know what they’re promising. This is something Rachel should have discussed with Erica privately, if she discussed it at all.

  • Lynne spoke:
    28th/04/2009 to 6:16 pm

    And I’d like to add that this was the only Q &A following a screening that had anything near what I’d call negative comments.. In fact, the comments were mostly negative except for the woman who asked for Matt Dillon’s hotel room #
    It is greatl to read blogs about our shared time & space! I was there and loved it and am enjoying your in depth blogs and film PHOTOS!!!

  • Lynne spoke:
    28th/04/2009 to 6:19 pm

    Check out my blog: http://lynnejordan.com
    I gave recaps save for a few of the films just so i could get to bed before dawn!! But I have tons of notes to expand my impressions per flick like you did. Hope I get around to it!
    Beautifully done Marilyn!! so glad i found your blog.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/04/2009 to 6:33 pm

    Thanks, Lynne. It was a great fest.

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