Movies that are ''ripped from the headlines,'' no matter how timely, risk looking corny and dated in a 24/7 blog/cable news culture that relentlessly tips urgency into irrelevance. So when I heard about Rod Lurie's Nothing But the Truth, a journalistic-political muckraker that offers fictionalized versions of the outed CIA agent Valerie Plame and the jailed-for-refusing-to-reveal-her-source New York Times reporter Judith Miller, I thought: Just what we need a bunch of folks going after Oscars by rehashing old news! Yet Nothing But the Truth has been made with brains, pace, and skill, and with a topical fury that puts it ahead of the curve on its real subject: the withering of freedom in a democracy gone apathetic.
In the wake of a presidential assassination attempt, D.C. reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale) writes a story divulging the identity of CIA operative Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga). As a parallel to the WMD/Plame/Miller saga, the plot is clunky but serviceable. When Rachel is jailed for refusing to name her source, however, Lurie turns the judicial-political gamesmanship into a deftly revealing drama of competing American rights. Beckinsale makes Rachel a fierce yet fragile dry-eyed martyr, but not a saint: To uphold her principles, she more or less abandons her child. Matt Dillon is slyly ruthless as the special prosecutor who uses ''national security'' as a bogus moral trump card, and Farmiga inhabits the agent with an anger both justified and reckless. When Rachel's case slips out of the ''hot'' news cycle, the public becomes as culpable for her squashed rights as the administration is. Lurie hits closer to the bone here than he did in his ham-handed The Contender (2000). But his newly honed skill raises a question: Why fictionalize at all? Next time he should try nothing but the truth. B+