It’s tempting to call Nothing But the Truth (2008) an ironically titled film. I mean, technically it’s not the truth — it’s a fictional re-imagination of the real-life Judith Miller-Valerie Plame controversy, in which Miller was jailed for contempt of court for failing to reveal the source by which she learned that Plame was a CIA officer. The film takes this reality, manufactures a fictionally similar scenario, applies leftish politics, and ultimately makes rather murky points.
In the alternate universe of this film, an assassination attempt on the president has led to a retaliatory U.S. military response against Venezuela. But was Venezuela responsible, or was the assassination attempt merely a convenient pretext for invasion and, presumably, regime-change? (Sound familiar?) Ambitious young journalist Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale) is convinced it’s the latter, and writes a controversial story to prove it — she has learned that CIA operative Erica Van Doren (the superb Vera Farmiga) has delivered a report to the White House disproving any connection between Venezuela and the assassination attempt. Her story calls into question any justification for the U.S. invasion, and creates quite a stir — but also runs her afoul of ruthless federal prosecutor Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon), who is determined to force Armstrong to reveal the identity of her source, presumably in the interest of national security. Armstrong refuses, to considerable consequence, embarking on a long personal battle during which she weighs the importance of journalistic integrity against the personal effects of what she’s done.
With most of the elements of an important, hard-hitting political drama in place, it’s disappointing that Nothing But the Truth can’t quite organize them into a successful movie. It’s fairly well produced, and uniformly well performed by a veteran cast that includes Alan Alda, Angela Bassett, David Schwimmer, and Noah Wyle, all of whom are effective. But it somehow also manages to be both clumsily blunt in its political tone and indecisive about whether to really deliver it. By that I mean that it’s impossible not to see the film as a thinly veiled rejection of the Bush administration, right down to Dillon’s good-old-boy southern accent, and the infuriating whiffs of McCarthyism its villainous government thugs invoke. But it also manages to portray the heroic Armstrong as something of a reckless opportunist, who is “learning her lesson” for her actions, suggesting that had she simply been more responsible, horrible things wouldn’t have happened and lives wouldn’t have been negatively impacted. Put more simply, it feels like the political message is muddied by the personal story.
In a more forgiving mood, I’d laud the film for wrestling with these sticky issues, at least. But in general I’d bemoan its lack of a more coherent artistic point, which in this case would have required more political eloquence than the script can muster. (It comes close, during a well articulated courtroom argument delivered by Alda, but the strength of that moment is sadly undercut by later missteps.)
The film is worthwhile chiefly for the performance of Farmiga, who is steely and dynamic as the outed CIA operative, and outshines the rest of an able cast by, in my opinion, an order of magnitude. And the movie also serves, perhaps, as a useful snapshot of American frustration with corrupt government in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. But ultimately, Nothing But the Truth, with all its potential, doesn’t bring many new insights to the issues, and fails to deliver a satisfying story.