Rod Lurie's "Nothing but the Truth" isn't ripped from the headlines so much as it's pasted together like a ransom note, using scraps so small their origins are indiscernible. The obvious inspiration for the story of a newspaper reporter who is jailed for refusing to reveal her sources is the Valerie Plame affair, and for a while the details match up.
A terrorist attack spawns an overseas assault based on shaky evidence (check), an ambassador questions the administration's rationale (check) and his wife is revealed to be a covert CIA operative, touching off a furious investigation into the source of the leak (check). But from there, Lurie spins off into invention like a "Law & Order" writer on deadline, scrambling the issues so thoroughly it's no longer clear what, if anything, the movie is meant to address.
Although "Nothing but the Truth" positions itself as an ardent defense of the 1st Amendment, it is at heart a tale of two mommies: Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale), an ambitious reporter for a D.C. daily, and Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga), whose intelligence career is ended when Rachel blows her cover in a front-page story.
(For practical as well as aesthetic reasons, Lurie has subsumed the role of syndicated columnist Robert Novak into that of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller.)
Since revealing a covert operative's identity is a treasonous offense, the full weight of the legal system comes to bear on Rachel, but she holds fast to the freedom of the press, even as her ever-extending jail time eats away at her marriage and her bond with her young son.
Lurie dwells to the point of tedium on the disparity between his high-powered heroines' professional lives and their domestic duties, staging their first meeting at a children's soccer game. The movie takes a few tepid slaps at sexism when Rachel is criticized for putting her professional ethics ahead of her family, but Lurie treats balancing work and home life as if it were some kind of fantastic novelty.
It's hard to imagine a scene where a male journalist being led off to a holding cell yells out to his spouse to pick up the kids.
The movie's schismatic approach at least lays the groundwork for a splendidly bifurcated performance from Farmiga, who goes from burbling soccer mom to shiv-wielding superspy in the blink of an immaculate eyelash. But it also points Lurie toward a silly twist ending that not only vitiates what has gone before but raises questions of far greater gravity than anything the movie has heretofore seen fit to address.
The last-minute switcheroo suggests, perhaps unintentionally, that Rachel is less a martyr to the cause than a schemer looking to cover her tracks. The muddying of her motives might be truer to life, but it obliterates the movie's tidy morality play and leaves us wondering whether the bad guys had the right idea after all.
'Nothing But the Truth'
MPAA rating: R for language, some sexual material and a scene of violence
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: At the Crest Theatre, 1262 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 474-7866