You could argue that Rod Lurie’s Nothing But the Truth, starring Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga in career-high performances, lost out on being an Oscar contender because its distributor, Yari Film Group, declared bankruptcy. And you’d probably be right.
Loosely inspired by the Valerie Plame case, the film focuses on Rachel Armstrong (Beckinsale), a reporter who goes to jail rather than reveal her source for a Pulitzer-prize nominated story revealing Erica Van Doren (Farmiga), another mom at her son’s school, to secretly be a CIA operative.
The film shows us the events as they unfold from the perspective of a reporter who’s willing to stay in jail and lose her husband and son rather than reveal who her source was. And as you’re watching the film, while your sympathies lie primarily with Armstrong, there are points where you wonder, how much is this woman willing to take in fighting for this abstract principle of the right of a journalist to protect a source, even in matters the government considers to pertain to national security? You wonder, if I found myself in her place, would I have that strength myself?
But what Lurie does with this film embodies so much more than that issue, important though it is. There’s a point in the film where Rachel argues that she’s being villified for being a woman and a mother, that she’s being painted as stubbornly refusing to reveal her source in spite of the effects on her husband, and especially her young son, from her incareration, and that no one would make those same accusations against a man who goes to jail for a cause he believes in, or a man who leaves his family to fight a war. She’s right. Lurie’s choice to make the character of Rachel a woman, and to pit her against another woman who might have been her friend in other circumstances, adds a layer to this film that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
When Nothing But the Truth showed at Ebertfest this weekend, it was, by my estimation, the most divisive film on the slate. After every other film that played the fest, audiences — whether they’d completely enjoyed a given film or not — were still buzzing positively about the experience of seeing it. After Nothing But the Truth, though, folks who saw it could be heard arguing about it, in the wash room and outside the theater. A lot of people didn’t like it — or at least, they didn’t agree with Rachel’s choice to go to jail at the expense of her family to protect her source. Some of them didn’t seem to like the reveal at the end, where the truth about Rachel’s source, and why she was willing to sacrifice so much to protect that source, is shown. So perhaps not everyone who saw the film at Ebertfest liked it, but when a film inspires that much discussion and dissent, well, I think it’s done something right.
Nothing But the Truth is a remarkable film. Lurie’s direction is taut and assured, the pacing is tense, and most of all, the performances by Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga are extraordinary. What a rare thing it is for any Hollywood film to offer not just one, but two such strong female roles, roles that rely not on the sexiness of the actress, or revealing her cleavage, or showing how men react to her presence or how her life and choices are determined by her relationship with a man, but purely on the strength and intelligence of the characters.
Beckinsale and Farmiga are fierce in their opposition to each other, but heartbreakingly human in the way in which they spar with each other. Van Doren’s life has been unraveled by Armstrong revealing her to be a CIA operative, and when it comes down to it, even her CIA bosses accuse her of revealing herself and destroying her own life; Armstrong’s life has been unraveled by her decision to write the story and by the consequences of that choice, which she couldn’t have imagined at the time she took the information she had and began to dig into the truth around the revelation of Van Doren’s secret.
It’s an intricate, fascinating story, made more interesting because of the way these two strong, female characters are drawn. There’s a complexity to the story that Lurie nails, and although you might start to suspect why Rachel is willing to go through all she does and make the sacrifices she makes to protect her source, the moment at the end pierces you, and makes you question all the assumptions you’ve made about her up to that point. And I should note that Beckinsale and Farmiga are backed up in their roles by some equally strong performances by the other performers who bolster the story, especially Alan Alda as Rachel’s attorney, Matt Dillon as the fiesty young special prosecutor who locks horns with her in a battle of wills and power, and Angela Bassett as Rachel’s editor.
It’s a shame that Nothing But the Truth lost its Oscar legs. Both Beckinsale and Farmiga, all due respect to Best Actress winner Kate Winslet, deserved to be in the running, and both their performances are more raw, honest and powerful than Winslet’s performance in The Reader that won her Oscar gold.
You probably didn’t get a chance to see Nothing But the Truth in theaters, but you have a chance to see it now that it’s out on DVD. I have to agree with Roger Ebert that it’s one of the most overlooked films of last year; perhaps it will get some new life and attention in its DVD release, because this film needs to be seen — for its underlying political message, yes, but equally so for the strength of the writing, the direction, and most of all the performances by Beckinsale and Farmiga. Roles this good for women just don’t come along that often, and Beckinsale and Farmiga deserve attention, and accolades, for the passion and fire with which they bring those characters to life. Put Nothing But the Truth at the top of your DVD rental list, and check it out for yourself. You might not agree with everything Lurie has to say in this film, but you can’t argue with the power of how he brings his tale to life.