Media law icon Abrams played a part in helping Lurie get closer to the 'Truth'A film shoot in a small town attracts stargazers like a lunar eclipse. But when writer-director Rod Lurie brought the production of his latest political drama, "Nothing but the Truth," to a Memphis courthouse, the judges and lawyers there were more interested in meeting a white-haired bit player than topliners Kate Beckinsale and Matt Dillon.
"Everyone was coming up to Floyd like he was Tom Cruise," Lurie jokes.
Floyd is Floyd Abrams, perhaps the country's foremost media lawyer. He recently defended New York Times reporter Judith Miller in the jailing that resulted from her refusal to cough up the source that outed Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. Lurie's fictionalized version of the Miller case — for which Yari Film Group has not set a release date — screened to a warm response this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, though the audience members I polled didn't fully appreciate the sly casting of Abrams as the judge who sends the character based on his own client to jail.
The irony certainly isn't lost on Abrams, whose first acting gig comes after 40 years of battling for a broad interpretation of the First Amendment, especially when it comes to protecting anonymous sources. "It's just vitally important to me and to the democratic process," he says. "Much of the most important journalism we have would never have occurred if sources believed their identities would be revealed."
Abrams, who also defended the Times in the landmark Pentagon Papers case, began as a consultant on the film when Lurie — whose father is Ranan Lurie, a well-known cartoonist and friend of Abrams' — asked if he could talk shop over New York Giants games. Lurie, himself a former entertainment journalist, had been watching the Miller case unfold in summer 2005 and pondering the same kind of "what if" questions that led to "The Contender," his 2000 thriller that switched the genders on the sexual politics behind Bill Clinton's impeachment, and "Commander in Chief," the short-lived (and possibly prescient) ABC series about a woman chosen to become vice president for political reasons who finds herself in the top job. "I asked myself, what if the reporter had kids who went to the same school as (the operative's) kids?" Lurie recalls. "What are elements that would illustrate the price of your principles and the price of democracy?"
The end result on the screen is a well-paced, law school-style hypothetical scenario designed to tease out both sides of the issue. Middle-aged Miller and Plame are now young moms Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga (this is Hollywood, after all), whose families both suffer when Beckinsale refuses to reveal who tipped her the name of a CIA operative who traveled to Venezuela in response to an assassination attempt on the U.S. president.
"The journalist should go to jail to protect a source," Lurie says. "But should there be a shield law? I don't know. I made this film to try to find the answer, and I discovered that I have no answer."
Abrams certainly has an answer, though: As he, Miller and former Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper know well, federal law doesn't agree with them. While every state except Wyoming now provides some sort of media shield protection, federal law offers virtually none, leaving reporters or their sources exposed on many of the most important stories implicating the government.
"We simply can't go on asking reporters to put their bodies and their money on the line to go after stories of that magnitude," Abrams argues. "We at least need to give them some kind of protection."
He can dream, and in the film, Beckinsale's lawyer, played by Alan Alda, monologues about the importance of balancing press freedom against obvious national security concerns. But with public opinion of the media wallowing in George W. Bush territory and Congress more concerned with the End of Days playing out in the financial markets, the prospect of a federal shield law seems about as likely as Sarah Palin going moose hunting with Keith Olbermann.
For his part, Abrams isn't ready to transition from media lawyer to client (his son, MSNBC's Dan Abrams, has gone that direction). He'd be happy if the film finds an audience and ends up furthering a dialogue that, despite its implications for freedom of speech, seems to be growing increasingly silent.
Matthew Belloni can be reached at [email protected]