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loyalty“I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” As Thomas Fleming points out in his book, The Morality of Everyday Life (2004), when E. M. Forster made this statement, he was defending rooted loyalties over abstract political doctrine.

Acts of betrayal and their concomitant demands of allegiance are at the center of the movie, Nothing but the Truth (2008), which is loosely based on the Valerie Plame affair from 2003. The story opens with a failed assassination attempt on the President of the United States, an attempt which appears to have been orchestrated from Venezuela. After a brief investigation by the Central Intelligence Agency, the President initiates a war against that South American nation. Unfortunately, one CIA investigator, Erica Van Doren (played by Vera Farmiga), has reached a different conclusion and has written a report that absolves Venezuela of any guilt. This report is ignored by the White House, but is soon discovered by our hero in the movie, Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale), a reporter for the Capital Sun-Times who uses her column to “out” Erica Van Doren as a spy intimately involved in the Venezuela affair.

As is wont to happen, upon the publication of the story, the proverbial stuff hits the fan, a special prosecutor is appointed (Patton Dubois played by Matt Dillon) and our journalist is hauled before a grand jury and ordered to give up her source. Refusing to do so, our Vassar and Columbia J School educated hero is cited for contempt of court and is thrown in jail where Judge Hall (played by real life attorney, Floyd Abrams) and the Supreme Court intend to keep her unless and until she reveals the name of the traitor.

Nothing But the Truth is a well played, honest effort to flesh out First Amendment issues in a dangerous world of often divided loyalties. What is most striking about the film, especially throughout the first half, is the sincerity and balance of the various factions who all have much at stake in this political and legal battle. Armstrong is a committed reporter, who, given this first big break, aggressively pursues this story and demonstrates the mental and physical toughness needed to report on a great government malefaction. Van Doren, unwillingly thrust into the spotlight, skillfully plays defense, dealing with the inherent distrust of her spooked colleagues, who are never convinced of her innocence, even though she has a blemish-free record and perfectly passes a lie-detector test. Patton Dubois comes across as an equally committed defender of justice who, with a feigned folksy demeanor, is fighting to maintain the integrity of national security. The only character who does not make a presentable and sympathetic case for himself is Armstrong’s attorney, the revered Albert Burnside (played by Alan Alda, who seemed more distinguished and dignified in Michael Moore’s spoof Canadian Bacon), to whom even Dubois genuflects, only to realize that Burnside is much more concerned with the tailoring of suits and the design of luxury wristwatches than with defending his client. While seeking a continuance in the initial hearing, Burnside proves woefully out maneuvered and Ms. Armstrong is immediately jailed.

The great dynamic in the movie is the relationship between Armstrong and Van Doren. Since their children attend the same school for the Washington power elite, Armstrong uses this coincidence to confront Van Doren at a school soccer game (among the power elite, children no longer play lacrosse or field hockey), in order to notify her that the Sun-Times will be printing the story which reveals her role in the Venezuela affair. Now compromised, Van Doren can only stammer and attack, and give herself away as she “protests too much”. Her battle now–a losing one–is to spend the remainder of her career fighting for her integrity. In one bitter scene in Arlington National Cemetery merely yards from where her father is buried, she is confronted by her handlers who make it clear that she is not to be trusted anymore in the service of her country. Farmiga plays this role with great respect and great pride, with just a mere touch of disillusionment as she comes under increased scrutiny. Her two confrontational scenes with Beckinsale clearly delineate the human anguish and sacrifice that many experience in defense of the country.

The narrative strength of Nothing but the Truth lies in its generally polyphonic structure. Each character, each voice, is given weight and respect. This is quite rare coming from the film industry which, especially in political thrillers, prefers the clean division between progressives and reactionaries, or defenders of the realm against their traitors. In this film, at least through the first half, there is a distinct tone of empathy and understanding of the emotions and thoughts of the characters and their unique plight. Each character presents herself sincerely and honestly so that the viewer is compelled to think deeply about issues of loyalty, trust and betrayal. As we witness the breakdown in the marriages of both Van Doren and Armstrong, we sense the intense stress and anguish that the defense of ideals can sometimes foist on the participants. There is no unified voice or ideology emanating from the screen.

That is until Van Doren is gunned down in her driveway by (who else but) a “right-wing fanatic.” Why a right-winger would assassinate a CIA operative who produced a report to keep the US out of war is not made clear in the movie, other than that this seems to be the standard Hollywood prejudice. From this moment on, the film loses much of its balance and becomes on the surface Armstrong’s fight for journalistic justice and freedom of the press against unsympathetic levers of power and an uncaring populace. Prosecutor Dubois becomes more focused and shrill about attacking Armstrong for contempt and obstruction of justice.

Yet, it is also at this point in the film, after Van Doren’s assassination that we begin to appreciate that some deeper issue is at work here. Ostensibly the plot centers on First Amendment Rights and the legal issues surrounding journalistic use of sources regarding national security, but we slowly learn–until the surprise ending–that there are deeper issues of loyalty and betrayal than the veneer of the political and legal. It is incomprehensible to the other characters in the film why Armstrong is willing to destroy herself over journalistic principles. The movie seems to be setting up the usual scenario of reporter-hero taking on the establishment against all odds, but it is only in the final scene of the movie, as she is being driven to prison that her source is revealed to us and we learn the true nature of her ethical dilemma. Her tragedy has been the story of divided personal loyalties and betrayals, not the fight for journalistic principles that everyone has assumed. She has lost everything, but possibly will now begin to gain back her soul.

Nothing But the Truth is not a great film, but it is a nice exfoliation of Forster’s aphorism. As Fleming put it, “Forster…concluded that people mattered more than principles, loyalty and friendship more than nations and parties.” It is only toward the end of the film that Armstrong recognizes the powerful effect of this conflict, a conflict that could have been avoided had she devoted herself to those immediately around her rather than to her professional standards. To take from Cicero (by way of Dr. Fleming), it is ultimately in the country’s best interest that we put those closest to us before the national and professional interest. Well acted and scripted, Nothing but the Truth raises significant issues about the demands of divided loyalties in these days of rampant globalization.

Books on the topics mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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