May 11, 2009

Nothing But the Truth

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½ (**** on the melodrama curve/scale)

As a writer/director (he's also a producer and a bit of an actor), Rod Lurie is best at giving us smart, swift and surprising melodramas, usually concerning politics and the media. Beginning with his first full-length feature, the under-seen, underrated Deterrence (1999), through 2000's The Contender (the film that was probably his most successful commercially, though in some ways his least effective) to his latest, Nothing But the Truth (which made its oddly-timed theatrical debut during the overbooked, sure-to-get-lost-in holiday season of 2008), Lurie grabs a current event or two, molds it to his own uses and then turns out a slick and riveting entertainment that forces you to think about what the moviemaker wants you to confront. You can disagree with him -- many do -- but it's harder to dismiss him out of hand.

Sure, Lurie is manipulative; his movies smack of manufacture. While the addition of these characteristics to any story reveals the difference between melodrama and drama, I can accept them more easily in a melodrama like Lurie's latest than I can in a film that appears to be a real drama (such as the current Revanche). In Nothing but the Truth, the filmmaker jumps off (but only partially) from something like the Valerie Plame affair -- the outing of a professional spy that short-circuits her career and is a crime in itself. Yet the film's other events surrounding this have nothing to do with the Plame blame, so viewers can't and won't take the film as anything approaching gospel. This is fine because Lurie's real subject is the journalist's right to protect a source -- a "right" that gets a good going-over before the movie reaches its conclusion.

Lurie loves to stir up a hornet's nest, and he does it by introducing a slew of opposing forces, sometimes surprising ones. Here, it is not just the government and the spy herself who want the "outer" identified, but even the reporter's own family, who have major trouble accepting what "protecting your source" can lead to. Lurie always gets a good cast to serve him: Kevin Pollak and Timothy Hutton in Deterrence; Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman in The Contender. In Nothing but the Truth, he's rounded-up Kate Beckinsale (I'm glad she chose this over a third Underworld outing) as the reporter; Vera Farmiga as the spy (another splendid performance from this fine actress); Matt Dillon, quietly nasty as the government's chief prosecutor; Alan Alda as the slick, smart defense attorney; and David Schwimmer as Beckinsale's semi-supportive husband.

Surprise is often important in melodrama, and Laurie' got a hell of one up his sleeve in "Truth" It answers the question that has been dogging both the characters and us viewers through the entire movie, and when it is suddenly revealed it proves genuinely surprising, believable and important. And it makes the theme of this very smart movie resonate.

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Posted by cphillips at May 11, 2009 1:04 PM
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