Monday, February 2, 2009
Nothing But the Truth ***1/2
Director: Rod Lurie
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Vera Farmiga
Matt Dillon, Angela Bassett, David Schwimmer, Alan Alda, Noah Wyle
Thanks to the course the world has taken in the last couple of decades the idea of politics has turned into something that implies corruption, naïve idealism and/or loss of time.
It’s not by chance that political films have also turned into grandiose, self conscious attempts of unmasking deeper truths about the dark ways of the feared “system”.
Along the way we’ve forgotten that, most of the time, it’s us who put the governments where they are (despite which of the parties we voted for) and that essentially politics are about us.
Rod Lurie’s clever, incredibly entertaining “Nothing But the Truth” is a reminder of what political films should be all about.
It starts by taking an underdog of sorts and having them fight the “big guys”, but then turns its very premise upside down into the kind of straightforward tale one might imagine someone like Plato or Aristotle using to teach because of all its repercussions.
Kate Beckinsale plays Rachel Armstrong, a reporter for “The Capitol Post” who has uncovered a juicy story involving CIA agent Erica Van Doren (Farmiga) and her connection to a cover up mission which the President of the United States used to invade Venezuela.
If all this screams Iraq and 9/11 it should, because as we learn from the start the film is “based” on actual facts.
After publishing the story and exposing the identity of agent Van Doren, whose daughter goes to school with her son, Rachel is prosecuted in the name of the almighty “national security” and is jailed until she reveals her original source.
In jail, like a Capra heroine, Rachel remains true to her values and the film becomes a day-by-day account of her endurance and the way it becomes a thorn in the lives of her family and the people trying to get the truth out of her.
Lurie’s narrative approach is by all means traditional; Rachel ends up fighting for her bunk with a violent cellmate and her attorney (a fantastic Alda) ends up delivering an inspiring speech to the Supreme Court.
It strays from most genre films in a couple of distinctive ways; the first being its powerful ensemble.
Beckinsale has been imprisoned in movies before, but never had she been such a screen presence as with Rachel. As a reporter, her hair up in a slightly intimidating bun, she embodies dignity, fearlessness and courage. In prison with her hair down and no make up she preserves the dignity, but adds warmth, fear and hurtful pride to the character.
In one of the best scenes in the movie she is interviewed by a Barbara Walters like journalist who pretends to be interested in their professional bond, but goes straight for the sensationalism only to bring out Beckinsale’s best responses and reactions.
Farmiga, who has got to be one of the most underrated actresses working out there, brings a distinctive charm and appeal to Erica. You imagine Farmiga to be someone doing international espionage during office hours only to come to her daughter’s soccer game in the evenings.
She gets some of the best dialogue in the film as she can go from scared and sweet to utterly bitchy; when she refers to Rachel as “Lois Lane” you can’t help but giggle, but she makes the hairs in your neck raise when she calls her an “unpatriotic little c…” and means it.
Dillon is great as a federal prosecutor with no obvious villainous traits and Bassett, also greatly underused and underrated, brings gravitas playing Rachel’s editor.
The ensemble even as good as it is wouldn’t be anything without what’s arguably the film’s greatest asset: its screenplay.
Lurie’s dialogues are delicious and wildly satiric, that he can use references from “The Sopranos”, Paris Hilton and Ermenegildo Zegna suits without falling into the kind of dragging obvious cynicism found in recent independent “comedies” is nothing if not breathtaking.
With this film he finds the balance between cinema and reality as he can easily go from over the top speeches and one-liners that couldn’t breathe outside a movie, to intimate almost silent moments based on heartbreaking reality.
This also aids him in his creation of characters that are essentially human; you can’t justify, condemn or vilify any of the people in this film without a greater debate.
Is Rachel right by staying true to her principles while she is recurring to the sort of pride easily condemned by religious people? Is she wrong because she is putting her career before her family life? Is there any difference between career and self in this case?
Should Erica have exposed her case without the need of a leak? Is she as unpatriotic as Rachel? And for that matter is patriotism related to your obedience of the executive power, the Constitution or your ethical and human knowledge of right and wrong?
Lurie’s film offers questions like that while demonstrating how unstable the judicial and penal systems can be.
This doesn’t try to defend the press either, because Lurie knows how stories nowadays are only as good as they sell, so it would be useless to pretend his film is about defending a lost cause.
What Lurie’s film is about is our perception of the truth. He’s asking us, now that we can’ trust the government, the law, the press or the media who will help us decide what’s true?
This cleverly executed discourse is suggested from the film’s title which reminds us of the oath used for justice purposes, but also implies that what we’re watching is a truth of sorts.
Perhaps not the “truth” from the “real story” with different names and events (if so, can this truth come in fictitious packages?) but also of the truth which these people as movie characters have to deal with.
They exist in the cinematic universe and watching them we are often asked to make compromises with ourselves that we wouldn’t consider doing for real people.
The reality/fiction parallels Lurie draws out between our perception of what we see in the news and what we see in our everyday life are chilling.
After all we often label people as “terrorists” by their looks, nationality or some other superficial element, without taking a single moment to try and look what’s beyond the surface.
Lurie however is smart enough to acknowledge that he’s no better than us and uses the mystery of Rachel’s source to point this out.
For some this need to find out who the source is will be persistent throughout the running time, while for others it will be a McGuffin of sorts that just helped propel the rest of the plot.
“Nothing But the Truth” ends where it began, in an obvious and implicit way. Rachel first sat on a school bus where her son accused someone of being a “tattle”. Later Rachel sits in a prison bus where she remained because she avoided being a “tattle”.
The visual element of the bus can be seen as a facile metaphor for the “journey of life”; however, the psychological implications of comparing essential childhood lessons to the distorted version of good and evil we deal with as grownups are far from being easy to digest and perhaps the only truth Lurie could come up with in his movie is that for all we know even kids know better.