Thursday, April 22, 2010

A choice and a price

Though most, if not all, of the controversial topics George Bernard Shaw wrote about 100 years ago have passed their expiration date, we still produce and enjoy his plays because of his skill at writing good arguments. They're good not just because his language is crisp and the jokes sharp, but because each side of the argument gets its due.

Shaw was fond of having a sympathetic character lay down his position in a thoroughly reasonable way, usually with a soupcon of wit, and getting everyone to know their heads along with him, when--BAM--on would come the opposite point of view, quite often from the mouth of an UNsympathetic character (in a couple of cases, the Devil Himself) and seem just as reasonable, just as deserving of a fair hearing as our erstwhile protagonist.

There's no use playing the game of social or political controversy with a stacked deck. Yes, some audiences can feel righteous and good for cheering for the good guy, but that fun wears off, and those films (much of the work of Stanley Kramer, for instance) fade fast. The trick is to play fair. It's like the story Jean Kerr told about her young daughter, who balked at playing Eve in her Catholic school play because, she said, "the snake has all the lines."

Rod Lurie, writer-director of Nothing But the Truth (2008) seems aware of this principle, but is not always able to follow it. His very interesting notion for the film was to put two women on opposite sides of a controversy, place them side by side and compare the human toll taking a public stand makes, especially on wives and mothers. Problem is, he can't help making one a clear heroine for standing up for a principle, even though it hurts her family. Lurie cuts some corners, comes up with some mechanical complications. And one of the story lines turns greviously melodramatic, which makes the final revelation more of a cardboard surprise than a stunning irony.

Still, the concept is good, and when Lurie sticks to his main idea, it is compelling, greatly aided by the acting of Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga as the women in question, Alan Alda as a defense attorney, Matt Dillon extremely convincing as a bullying prosecutor (from experience, I can tell you that is a redundant expression) and actual First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams as a judge. The film also boasts David Schwimmer, Noah Wylie, Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance, so this does not look like the low-budget indie that it is.

Adding verisimilitude is the grainy and washed-out cinematography by Alik Sakharov, who (presumably in collaboration with the director) makes some strikingly asymmetrical compositions that contribute to the feeling of unbalance. The most shocking thing about the film is how a piece this well done on such a strong subject with such a well-known cast could have sunk without a trace a couple of years ago, while the parade of comic-book movies goes merrily on and on.

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