For those suffering historical amnesia due to endless news cycles, Rod Lurie’s Nothing But The Truth seeks to jar the memory by offering a fictionalized account of a hot-button 2005 story involving New York Times journalist Judith Miller, who was incarcerated for refusing to reveal the source of an unpublished story about the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. This was a big deal back in the summer of 2005, before Kanye West declared that the president did not care about members of a certain group during a nationally televised post-Katrina fundraiser. To quickly rehash the Plame-Wilson-Novak-Miller-Libby affair: in July 2003, journalist Robert Novak reports that Valerie Plame is a covert CIA operative, presumably tipped off by Vice Presidential aid Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who is later convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, only to have his sentence commuted by President Bush on July 2, 2007.
As one can tell from that convoluted sentence, the true story is a labyrinthine tale of intrigue among Washington insiders that could be the defining story of the decline of politics and media during the Bush years. Lurie’s fictional account is none of the above (except a little convoluted), and even then, disappointingly so. A self-proclaimed political junkie, Lurie was fairly successful in capturing the hysteria surrounding sex during the Clinton years with his 2001 film The Contender. In this more recent outing, however, he takes all the potentially salient points of the Miller saga and turns them into a sappy drama with a few shock-value twists. For instance, Miller’s role as a journalistic martyr was complicated by her own role in the NYT’s failure on WMD stories; indeed, some suggested this put her on good terms with the White House and gave her better access to figures like Libby.
Lurie begins his film with a literal bang, presumably to evoke 9/11 without using 9/11: a gun shot rings out over black and the president is nearly assassinated! The U.S. blames Venezuela (China and Russia are presumably too Big Deal, the other usual suspects too Muslim?) and launches a bombing campaign in retaliation. Lurie’s Miller stand-in is Rachel Amstrong (Kate Beckinsale), an eager young reporter and mother. Rachel is on the verge of breaking the story of her career by exposing Plame stand-in Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga) as a covert CIA operative whose fact-finding mission to Venezuela found no evidence the government was involved in the assassination. When Rachel refuses to reveal her source to special prosecutor Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon), she is sent to prison. The remainder of the film deals primarily with her personal struggles in jail and the plodding series of appeals her court case takes before winding down to a whimper of an ending.
Interestingly, the problem with Lurie's film reflects that of news organizations on the whole: rather than parsing the relevant issues, it devolves into a “human interest” story. Wouldn’t it be tough for a pretty, upper middle-class Vassar graduate in prison? Even when Lurie does pose ethical questions, it seems redundant and superficial at best: Do journalists have a responsibility in deciding to publish a story? Yes, but wasn’t that also the entire point of the far superior Absence of Malice? Are women still the victims of sexism in media? Sure, but wasn’t that why you made The Contender and the TV series Commander-in-Chief? There's an undoubtedly interesting world here that Lurie could probably show us, and he hints at it when Rachel questions the Libby stand-in at a mutual friend’s party. But rather than taking us deeper into how politics and beltway journalism might actually function, he gives us a Lifetime-worthy hybrid of women’s prison movie and courtroom drama, with just a dash of cable news-level commentary.