Rod Lurie says he likes my blog. He’s a friend—well, a Facebook friend, anyway. I might recuse myself from reviewing his latest film, Nothing But the Truth, but I should add that all this happened after I panned his last movie, Resurrecting the Champ. “Fails the smell test” and “middlebrow hack” were about the nicest things I had to say about it, and him. With friends like me…I assume the writer/director was bored during last year’s writers’ strike and desperate for a blogosphere diversion, or is weirdly masochistic, plotting some strange flattery-based revenge, or buttering me up.
Nothing But the Truth, a good movie, doesn’t require evasive action or a charm offensive. Lurie’s best film since The Contender (2000), its virtues are in ample supply. It needs a little love: Right before it opened, for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles, its distributor, Yari Film Group, went belly-up, and however that goes it would be a shame to lose it to DVD or cable or some “ancillary” before it gets a proper chance in theaters. (The movie has a confident, dark-toned visual style, from Sopranos cinematographer Alik Sakharov, that should be seen as intended.) Neither a big studio-backed picture with resources nor a hand-to-mouth indie with do-it-yourself cachet in its favor, it’s in an awkward position, and deserves a better hand.
Lurie is a former journalist, and the new film is evidence of continuing education. Nothing But the Truth takes the Judith Miller rumpus over “Plame-gate” and, like a Law and Order episode (and The Contender) reworks the facts. There was snickering when the screening I attended began; there always is, in a roomful of press people, when the subject is the newsroom and everyone’s waiting for the movie to get it wrong. It doesn’t. Lurie may be spending his time on soundstages but his heart is still in the give-and-take of reporting, and the newsroom scenes of this capitol-set drama (shot at the Memphis Commercial Appeal in Tennessee) are truthful and taut. The murmuring ended pretty quickly.
The hush came from Lurie playing to his strength. As The Contender and the short-lived TV show Commander in Chief attest he is a ladies’ man, who gives good actresses strong, torn-from-the-headlines material to work with. The embattled Miller, of the WMD mirage, has been made over into “Capitol Sun-Times” reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale), and revamped into a more sympathetic, less credulous professional, with a spy novelist husband (David Schwimmer) who half-accommodates her ladder climbing and a son (Preston Bailey) she half-watches and half-ignores as she takes her work onto his school bus. There is much to write about, as the nation reels from an attack on the president allegedly ordered by the Venezuelan government and a resultant, all-too-real bombing of Caracas by the U.S. (I tried to write around this; the beginning, end, and even middle of the story contain surprises, but this is the very first thing we see in the movie and it was too sweet to pass up. What will Hugo Chavez think?)
Armstrong angers the administration when she exposes the Venezuelan connection as fraudulent, based on a leak traceable to CIA agent Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga). Armstrong’s public exposure of the agent’s identity, based on information gleaned from a well-placed anonymous source, sets off a maelstrom of events. There is a reckoning between the two women, soccer moms who play rough with each other in riveting sequences. Then there are the consequences they face alone: Van Doren is shunned and threatened by her handlers, and a career-conscious special prosecutor (Matt Dillon) sends Armstrong to jail for refusing to name her source. For verisimilitude, First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, Miller’s counsel, plays the District Court judge who locks her up; to outline the issues at stake, Lurie has enlisted Angela Bassett as her editor, Noah Wyle as the paper’s in-house attorney, and Alan Alda as her attorney, who takes her case to the Supreme Court over a tense period of reflection and recrimination.
Lurie finesses a complicated plotline as if it were an in-depth newsmagazine feature, going over the key points patiently, without patronizing us. He is fortunate in his leads. The conventional way to play Van Doren would be close to the vest, concealing secrets; instead, Farmiga goes for the jugular, all nerve endings and exposed emotions. She is, as always, an actress to treasure. Had I undervalued Beckinsale? Nothing But the Truth, and Snow Angels earlier in the year, make me think so. The winsome English rose of 1995’s Cold Comfort Farm went the full Hollywood in Pearl Harbor, the Underworld movies, and Van Helsing; there was not a trace of the actress left as Hayley Mills put herself under the knife and turned into Vampira. I’d forgotten that I missed her till glimmers of humanity started to emerge; the exhaustion of prison as news cycle interest drifts from Armstrong’s case doesn’t show on Beckinsale’s unlined face, but we see it in her spirit. Hers is an uneasy, unwanted martyrdom.
Alda’s summation of the principles behind his client’s stand to the Supreme Court, beautifully written and played, brought a tear to my eye. Lurie reminds us why we should love our woebegone morning paper, and the fallible, headstrong, sometimes heroic staffers who put it out, against lengthening odds. So as to preserve my own impartiality, I will say that Leslie Bricusse has nothing to fear from Lurie, who co-wrote the closing theme song, and if that was him in an early cameo he’s no Sydney Pollack. But Nothing But the Truth compares favorably to Pollack’s excellent Absence of Malice (1981), which is at the pinnacle of journalism movies. Lurie continues to improve, which is all you can ask of your Facebook friends.
Back in the day, an “event” picture like Quantum of Solace would play an entire season. I saw it last week, a month after it had opened, and the near-empty theater had the air of a movie about to hit Showtime next week. It’s a tough market out there when a movie that opened at $70 million and is a hit here and abroad has to make way for this weekend’s mass-marketed sensation, and I felt like Will Smith in I Am Legend attending so late in the run, the last Bond fan on Earth to do so. But Daniel Craig is a cool customer who can rouse even the doziest house, and his bullheaded approach keeps the fair-to-middling Bond 22 afloat. It’s comical how liberally he uses his license to kill to crack the latest semi-plausible, Chinatown-ish caper, and the deaths are like punchlines, with Judi Dench’s M having to clean up after the mess.
The film is a lumpy, patchwork followup to the clean, well-organized Casino Royale, which got the series back on its feet again after the dutiful, place-holding tedium of the Brosnan era, and the slippage is evident. The hit-hungry director, Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, and other humdrum, modestly successful examples of middlebrow “art” cinema), goes in for mega-mix editing that makes a blur out of the opening car chase, and rarely relents, as the short (shortest Bond ever) but longer-feeling entry milks just about every mode of transportation available for thrills. (A frantic foot chase through Siena, modeled after the parkour sequence in the last film, is the highlight.) I would have thought that after the self-parodying embarrassment of Die Another Day the series would steer clear of winking homages to the past, but Goldfinger is rather nastily trotted out, and The Spy Who Loved Me and The Living Daylights are also referenced. Then again, it may just be that after nearly two dozen movies the series, which sticks with writing staff past their inspiration date, has gone a little senile and is just repeating itself.
Quantum drops the ball in other ways. The “Another Way to Die” theme, a first-time duet for the series co-warbled by Jack White and Alicia Keys, is coitus interruptus, building toward something and never climaxing. It’s a song stuck in a condom. The cog-in-the-wheel villain, a phony environmentalist grimaced by Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and The Butterfly), is a petulant disappointment, though the part will look good on his reel if someone decides to make The Roman Polanski Story and he has to test for the lead (I’d give it to him without hesitation; it’s a perfect match.) The backsliding, so soon after the resurrection, is worrisome, and it may that the series should take a longer breather between entries. There is Solace in that Olga Kurylenko has just enough sullen personality to hold her own in an underwritten part—the memory of Eva Green’s departed Vesper Lynd casts a long shadow over the proceedings, maybe too long—and that Jeffrey Wright’s wry little smiles manage to substitute for his not having much to do, either, as CIA agent Felix Leiter. But a Daniel Craig is a terrible thing to waste, and Bond 23 needs to live up more to its star.
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