In July of 2003, Valerie Plame was outed as a covert CIA agent by columnist Robert Novak. During a Grand Jury investigation of the leak, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was called to testify about similar information she received and refused to reveal her source on the grounds of journalistic integrity. She was found in contempt of court and spent 85 days in jail. She was released when her source, revealed to be Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff, signed a waiver allowing her to testify on the matter. As a result of the scandal, Plame retired from the CIA in 2005 since her classified identity had been compromised, and Judith Miller lost her job at the Times over a series of articles that falsely made the case for WMDs in Iraq, the very same claim Plame was trying to refute during her work in 2003.
This idea of two women on opposite poles whose lives are shattered as a result of an article is the inspiration for a fictionalized film called Nothing But the Truth. No stranger to polemics on the nature of politics and journalism, writer-director Rod Lurie (The Contender, Resurrecting the Champ) has crafted a movie that challenges the audience’s preconceptions about the Plame affair by creating totally different characters and placing them in a similar predicament. Washington DC reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale) writes an article outing Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga) as a CIA operative. When Rachel refuses to reveal her source to a federal prosecutor, played by Matt Dillon, she is sent to jail. As the days turn to months, the jailed Rachel begins to face the consequences of abandoning her family for refusing to back down from her principals.
Lurie sat down with us for an exclusive talk where he refutes as well as reaffirms many of the preconceptions about his new movie, as well as the current state of film journalism. A former movie journalist himself, Lurie was very conscious of the way his film is handled by the press…
Rod Lurie: Let me ask you a question: how old are you?
Lurie: You’re twenty-seven, okay I find it interesting when I speak to journalists about the film. They react differently based on their age simply because of how they remember the glory years of journalism. You never lived in the glory years of journalism, you weren’t even alive.
CS: All I know about Woodward and Bernstein I learned from the Pakula movie.
Lurie: In my opinion the best American film ever made. I remember watching that film [“All the President’s Men”] when I was 13-years-old and it first made me want to be a journalist, then it made me want to be a filmmaker. To this day I think it’s the best cast, best directed, best acted film I’ve ever seen. A lot of people would argue with that but nobody would call me crazy for saying that.
CS: Your film definitely brought Pakula to mind. The thing about his movies was the style was always detached and invisible, and even when they were about important socio-political events their first objective was to entertain the audience.
Lurie: I think that’s probably correct, although the detachment of movies like “Parallax View” and “All The President’s Men” can be slightly misleading. In fact, there were some beautiful stylistic moments in “President’s Men” but they always served the movie. For example, there’s this massive moving crane shot in the Library of Congress. That is not meant to show off, that’s meant to demonstrate that they’re lost in a sea of information. All the acting is naturalistic. Nothing is heightened. I have spent my entire career trying to get from everybody involved the naturalism that Pakula and Sidney Lumet had in their movies. I don’t think I have yet succeeded. My individual actors have succeeded.
CS: If you look at other people making political-themed movies right now, guys like Greengrass and Soderbergh and Stone, they all have their stamp on the picture. When I watched “Nothing But the Truth” it was all about the actors. The “director” never intruded.
Lurie: There definitely is an intention to tell the tale simply and allow the story to be the center of the film. We did do stylistic things. For instance at the beginning of almost every scene we don’t show you the most important element, we let you discover it. If you look at the film again you’ll see the camera moves from point “A” to point “B” making revelations. We want the audience to discover these moments the same way a reporter would uncover information.
CS: Since the Toronto Film Festival there’s been a great deal of attention lavished on both Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga’s performances. What was your process with them?
Lurie: I will say that Kate Beckinsale may be the most well-prepared actor I’ve ever worked with. She’s no party girl, this one. She spends every single night holed up in her room either talking to her daughter or pouring over that script like she’s studying for a final exam at M.I.T. She has almost every syllable worked out. She tries to figure out the intent of every moment, and had a pretty perfect understanding of the character. There was almost no scene in which I had to give her direction to tell her she was off-kilter on something or wasn’t presenting the mood or emotions I saw in the scene. Vera Farmiga, on the other hand, is a caged animal. Before a scene she is walking and pacing back and forth. She can’t wait for the word “ACTION” to be said, and when they are she leaps into action as if she’d been set free into the wild. She deals with instincts. If I’m satisfied with a take she’ll do another one, and sometimes in the middle of a scene she’ll go back to the beginning, all of a sudden, without even alerting the other actor, and do the scene in a completely different way. She’ll only do that during her close-up, she won’t impose that on another actor’s close-up, of course, but it’s pretty amazing.
CS: Her character is clearly inspired by Valerie Plame…
Lurie: I’m gonna disagree with that. The characters themselves are not inspired by Miller or Plame. Their situations are inspired by what happened. I think that it’s relevant to say that because Kate’s character is nothing like Judith Miller, and as far as I know Vera’s character is nothing like Valerie Plame. I put my characters into their situations and wanted to see how it worked out.
CS: That dynamic is what made it such a challenging film. It’s a bizarro-world alternate universe version of the Plame affair. Given the reality of what happened with Judith Miller and the hindsight of now knowing the Bush administration’s role in leaking that info to the press, what was your dramatic motivation to push the audience’s sympathies towards the Miller stand-in?
Lurie: Again, the flashword you’re using of Judith Miller is what’ll be confusing. I didn’t realize how unsympathetic a character she was, especially to the New York press who rather vilified her. I looked to another personality, Susan McDougal, who really was a woman who stood her ground very dramatically and stood by a set of principles that she was not going to testify about Clinton, was not going to be forced to do it and stood in contempt of court all those years. What makes Kate’s character unique is the absolute principles. She has a breaking point, but it’s gonna be very hard to get to it.
CS: Vera’s character calls her a “water walker”.
Lurie: Yes, that’s the way she views her, and her husband views her as stubborn and not a good parent, and her lawyer views her as a tragic idealist. She’s viewed in different ways from different people, which is the case in life.
CS: The fictional situation is still very similar to the real one in that you have a President who’s invading a foreign country under false pretence and there’s a CIA agent privy to pertinent info who’s exposed in the press. The source of that leak is the game-changing difference between your story and reality.
Lurie: I’ll tell you how the whole thing began. I was working on this show “Commander in Chief.” The Geena Davis character had to watch a journalist go to jail for protecting a source who gave him information that was bad for her. The twist of the show was that she pardons the guy even though he wrote bad things about her because in her America journalists aren’t sent to jail. I’m fired from the show and Steven Bochco comes in and eliminates every single idea I had. So now I really wanted to tell that story, and at the same time Miller was going to jail. I thought it would be an interesting dynamic if Miller had children and Plame had children and those kids went to school together. Everything sort of burst from there.
CS: You seemed to be trying to put a human face on a situation that was morally convoluted.
Lurie: The movie’s morally convoluted too. Kate’s clearly the hero of the film, but she’s a character who’s not without flaws or challenges to her journalistic ethics. She’s not a saint. I don’t want to reveal the ending the ending is the reason all the actors signed up for scale Here’s what happens: the people in the audience who loved her throughout the entire film don’t like her anymore at the end, and the people who had problems with her love her by the end. It’s an ending that makes you revisit the entire movie all over again. Anyone who sees it a second time, which we hope are many, those people will come to a unity of opinion about her as flawed but positive.
CS: It’s still going to be difficult for the viewers to disassociate your story from the events you’re drawing from.
Lurie: Listen, I understand it’s difficult and I may have done myself some damage by making the outlying events so similar. If I could go back and do it again I don’t know what I’d do, but I love this story so much and it fit perfectly into what I wanted to do.
CS: The fact that it does veer off in this other direction makes the viewer take a step back and think, “Well, if he’s not telling the story I assumed he was telling, what is he trying to say?” The ethics of the media, the ethics of journalism…
Lurie: I don’t think it’s so much about the ethics of journalism as it is about the ethics of government. There used to be a time when journalists were noble savages, and everyone respected them. There’s a line in the movie where Alan Alda says, “We used to be the white knight, now we’re the dragon.” No one can figure out when that occurred. So the film examines “what is the state of journalism today?” It also examines the need for a federal shield law, and whether the government should have the right to willy nilly throw journalists into jail. The conflict of liberties.
There was one review that was not positive on the film, which I’m happy to say is in the minority, and the person said the film “goes off the liberal rails.” That was an eye-opening thing to read, and here’s why: this is not a liberal film and it’s not conservative. It’s absolutely non-partisan. In fact the Matt Dillon character, the “villain” of the film, is a Democrat. The federal shield law, which would protect journalists from being thrown in jail, is being pushed in the Senate by two Republicans: Lugar of Indiana and Specter of Pennsylvania. One-hundred -and-seventy-six Republicans in the House of Representatives voted for the law. This reviewer was just uneducated on it, and assumed that if Hollywood makes a movie on politics, whatever position it takes must be a liberal position.
CS: Which is ridiculous. The film is politically ambivalent, and it goes back to Pakula and the fact that this is an entertainment first and foremost.
Lurie: In the end it is a thriller, isn’t it? There’s a sustaining question throughout the film of “who is the source?”
CS: And that turns into a “Citizen Kane”-style reveal
a “Rosebud,” if you will.
Lurie: You said that, not me! I’m not going to compare it to “Citizen Kane.”
CS: There’s a comment Kate’s character makes in the film about how the internet is eating print alive. You recently wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about the death of print film criticism. Yesterday the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy protection. As a former journalist, what do you think is the biggest price we’re going to pay for abandoning print in the end?
Lurie: To me it is inconceivable, almost a tragedy, that this is happening. I grew up with newspapers, the world has had newspapers for hundreds of years, and it’s going away for purely economic reasons. To a certain degree you have to blame Craigslist more than anything else because it eliminated the need for classified ads, which was the driving economic force behind so many newspapers. I think there are some amazing internet journalists. I love reading your site, I go to it every single day. I love reading Jeffrey Wells’ site, I go to David Poland’s site. I go to sports sites, especially football. There’s nothing wrong with internet journalism at all, but it’s a journalism that by definition needs to come across extremely quickly. That has forced the print people to go faster, and the result is some very sloppy journalism. Since the internet age began we’ve had more journalistic scandals per-pound than ever before, and a lot of that is propelled by the need for speed. It’s very depressing to me.
Then there’s the whole thing about anonymous bloggers. When you go to sites like ComingSoon or David’s or Jeff’s site there are people responding to the articles. Some of the stuff that is written can be extremely defamatory. Improper facts can be put out, and everyone is using a pseudonym. It’s very cowardly if you ask me. The result sometimes is wrong information gets put out there, and there are no lawyers or editors to corral this whatsoever. That is gonna come to roost pretty soon, something’s gonna happen.
Once on one of the sites someone was writing something about me, somebody with a name like “TonysHouseBig3,” some pseudonym. He knew a little about me. He saw how I got into West Point, and attributed it to some sort of scam. It was wrong. It was false and intended to harm. There’s no repercussions because it’s anonymous. So we had to get involved and have it taken down. That’s not always going to happen and I have to be on the alert.
The other thing about these anonymous people is many of them have agendas. I guarantee many of them are competing studios, competing directors. People who have some sort of grudge to hold against films or TV shows or athletes or whatever. It’s a little bit disorienting.
CS: Despite all that, you’ve still been one of a handful of major directors to embrace the internet and post things on message boards, etc. From that community of fresh writers on the frontier, what appeals to you the most about them?
Lurie: When I read Jeffrey Wells I’m reading one of the best writers I’ve ever read. I think he’s extraordinary. He comes up with phrases I think are just wonderful. When he talked about the people who wouldn’t see the 9/11 movies he called them the “Too-Sooners”. When I read Poland the guy has got an extraordinary amount of knowledge about the industry and he writes in such detail that you can actually learn from him. I read Ed Douglas all the time on ComingSoon. I also like how somebody like Roger Ebert has embraced the internet and it has increased his writing many-fold. I also like the compendium of reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, I think IMDb is very useful. I’m not opposed to the internet, I just wish I could still get my fingers stained by the ink.