Two more movie reviews

Nothing but the Truth (2008)

As you may recall, back in 2005 Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter, was jailed for contempt for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury. She refused because she did not want to chance revealing any of her sources for her stories. The jury was looking into who outed CIA agent Valerie Plame. Miller was suspected of having evidence relevant to the leak investigation. For refusing to cooperate, Miller spent eighty-five days in jail during which she never revealed her source. Eventually she received permission from her source (I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby) to reveal his identity and she was released from jail.

Nothing but the Truth is a movie loosely based on the Valerie Plame affair. Unlike Miller, who never actually outed Plame (Robert Novak did the dirty deed), in this movie a reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale), a crack investigative reporter for “The Capital News”, outs a CIA agent with a front page story. This CIA agent (Angela Bassett, played by Bonnie Benjamin) is missing Plame’s blonde hair. Armstrong is quickly hauled before a federal prosecutor (Patton DuBois, played by Matt Dillon) and of course, she refuses to reveal her sources. Despite having a crack attorney (played by Alan Alda), both the prosecutor and the judge seem anxious to make an example with Armstrong on what to do with tight-lipped journalists. She is soon behind bars and dealing with all sorts of emotional issues, including the feelings of estrangement from her young son and her husband.

This movie spends much more time showing us how miserable an experience it is to be in jail than informing us about the issue of confidentiality of sources. Apparently being a woman in a DC jail involves no individual cells, bunk beds, one television for the whole ward and women largely unafraid to beat up on each other. Most of us would be squealing within hours. Although hardly unaffected by her environment, she holds fast to her promise, losing a husband in the process. Unlike Miller, who only spent eighty-five days in jail, Armstrong spends a whole year behind bars. Her case, like Millers’, also goes before the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike Miller’s career, which now includes a stint as a Fox News analyst, this movie has a surprising and unpleasant ending. Prosecutor DuBois seems unusually vindictive. Maybe he is secretly a misogynist. If you don’t loathe DuBois at the beginning of the movie, you will by its end.

While this movie feels a bit too stereotypical, it is competently executed. What you get is a solid movie which while well acted and where women do most of the acting, leaves little in suspense. In short, while not a bad film, there is no compelling reason to watch it. So you will probably want to give this one a pass and rent something worthier instead

3.0 on my four-point scale.

Ragtime (1981)

Having recently seen the musical Ragtime I thought it might be fun to watch the 1981 movie based on the book as well. Perhaps I need to actually read the book to see whether the movie or the musical is more faithful to the book. Like Nothing but the Truth, Ragtime turns out to be well done movie, but nothing exceptional. If a fan of the musical, your appreciation for the story will not improve by renting the movie too.

1981 now seems a very long time ago, which is why I could not place any of the principle actors. It was not until the credits rolled that they fell into place. In this movie, we find the legendary actor James Cagney in what turned out to be his last role in a motion picture. Here he plays New York Police Commissioner Waldo. Also almost unrecognizable (probably from the blond hair) is Brad Dourif as Younger Brother. (He played Grima Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings movies.) In the musical, the Latvian/Jewish immigrant Tateh gets much more screen time than he does in the movie. Tateh too looked familiar and is played by Mandy Patinkin. Moreover, just whom was that woman playing the empty-headed Evelyn Nesbit? It turned out to be Elizabeth McGovern, who in one scene includes full front nudity and a minute or two where she is topless. This is a PG movie; the standards must have tightened quite a bit since 1981.

While the story is very similar to the musical there are some changes. Father (played by James Olson) has a more prominent role while Mother (played by Mary Steenburgen) seems much more subdued and docile. Howard E. Rollins Jr.’s portrayal of Colehouse Walker Jr. is nicely done. Emma Goldman never appears in the movie, and in the movie, Younger Brother manages to become a lover to Evelyn Nesbit. In the musical he is her flirtation.

Any movie that starts with credits saying it is a Dino De Laurentis Production should make you apprehensive, since he was known for making overblown and badly acted disaster movies. The Ragtime era is hard to convey convincingly, but director Milos Forman does a great job of making you feel you are living in early 20th century America. The street scenes, the trolley lines, the old-fashioned buildings, the abundance of horses and cars all make it feel quite authentic. I really liked James Olson’s performance as Father because it was wonderfully understated. He fits well as a Victorian-era gentleman.

The musical though is a much more satisfying than the movie. The movie feels a bit emptier without Emma Goldman’s presence, none of the labor strife, with Tateh as an ancillary character, and with Mother remaining largely superficial rather than the woman who undergoes a profound metamorphosis in the musical. Also, in the movie we get Randy Newman’s version of Ragtime, rather than Stephen Flaherty’s. Ragtime the movie turns out to be quite well done is but never quite as engaging as it should be.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

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