Viewer Guide: A Soldier’s Story and Nothing but the Truth

February 25, 2019 | Jacqueline Medina

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.

REEL 13 CLASSIC | A SOLDIER’S STORY

This week’s is A Soldier’s Story, the 1984 screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Charles Fuller, directed by Norman Jewison.

It’s hot and humid night, and Sergeant Vernon Waters is staggering home after too many drinks at a dive bar near the Fort Neal Army Base in Tynin, Louisiana. But Sergeant Waters doesn’t make it home—not because of the booze, but because he is shot twice by an unseen assailant, his final slurred words—“They still hate you!”—a kind of twisted punchline to a horrifying joke.

And with that, A Soldier’s Story plunges us into a very different kind of murder mystery; the year is 1944, and Fort Neal is an African American base, deep in the era of the Jim Crow South, governed by an utterly different code of ironclad conduct. Despite immediate assumptions that the Klan must be to blame, a murder on a US army base can’t go unsolved, so an army attorney arrives in due course…but he turns out not to be the sort of investigator anyone is expecting. Played by Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Captain Richard Davenport is the first black officer that most of the troops—and their white superiors—have ever had occasion to see, which only serves to set tensions even further on edge.

Instructed to wrap up his investigation within three days to avoid stirring up emotions within both the area’s white and black communities, Davenport has to work fast in getting to the bottom of the mystery. But in the entrenched segregated world of the base, with such limited contact with the larger white world, Davenport soon finds he has to take a closer look at Waters’ regiment, where he discovers something even stranger and uglier lurking in the barracks shadows.

Heading up the outstanding supporting cast is Denzel Washington in one of his earliest film roles, along with Adolph Caesar in a riveting Oscar-nominated performance as Sergeant Waters. Jazz great Herbie Hancock contributed the innovative, contrapuntal score, with Patti LaBelle in her feature film debut as “Big Mary,” the Juke joint singer tearing up the stage during the film’s opening title sequence.

Inspired by Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Off-Broadway play opened in 1981, utilizing a conventional murder mystery plot to explore the most unconventional and somewhat taboo subject of internalized racism within the African American community. The end result was an insightful dramatization of the never-ending price to be paid for America’s fearsome legacy of institutionalized racism, and how it ultimately destroys both the oppressed and the oppressor in equal measure.

Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington and William Allen Young reprised their roles on screen from the original 1981 Negro Ensemble Company stage production, with Fuller adapting the screenplay from his own play. Director Norman Jewison had initially developed the project at Warner Bros., but without confidence in its commercial prospects the studio ultimately passed and put the script into turnaround. Jewison then shopped the project at Universal, MGM and United Artists before Columbia Pictures reluctantly committed, but only after greatly reducing the budget due to similar box office concerns. Committed to seeing A Soldier’s Story make it to the screen, Jewison and most of the actors agreed to work for scale. With Arkansas standing in for the fictional “Tynin” Louisiana, the set was visited by then-Governor Bill Clinton, who offered a helping hand by contributing the unpaid services of the Arkansas Army National Guard for the film’s closing parade sequence. Racking up over $20 million dollars at the box office upon its initial release, the film was honored with three Academy Award nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Adolph Caesar, Best Adapted Screenplay for Charles Fuller and Best Picture—welcome validation and acclaim that was all the more gratifying for an atypical project that few in Hollywood had expected to succeed.

REEL 13 INDIE | NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH

This week’s indie is Nothing but the Truth, a 2008 political suspense drama directed by Rod Lurie.

As played by Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga, Rachel Armstrong and Erica Van Doren look like a couple of Moms in suburban Washington, DC, casually chatting at their kids’ grade school soccer match. But listen closer, and their true identities emerge—and with a clash of steel. Rachel is a reporter for the fictitious Capital Sun-Times, and Erica is a covert CIA operative, recently returned from a trip to Latin America to investigate whether the Venezuelan government was involved in a recent presidential assassination attempt. Rachel is doing her final fact checks on a story that outs Erica as an undercover agent, with the Sun-Times all set to rush the story onto the newsstands the next day.

If this all sounds familiar, it might be because Nothing but the Truth takes its inspiration from the true story of reporter Judith Miller, who was jailed in 2005 for refusing to name her source in the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent. But at the dramatic core of the film is Rachel’s unswerving refusal to reveal her source for the confidential information about Erica, despite the steadily increasing pressure for her to do so. How long will Rachel stand by her principles—even as the damage to her career and personal life begins to accumulate—and more importantly, why ultimately is she doing it?

Also starring are David Schwimmer as Rachel’s husband, Angela Bassett as her editor, Noah Wyle as the Sun-Times’ legal counsel, Alan Alda as Rachel’s dandyish lawyer and Matt Dillon as the Federal prosecutor who’s folksy charm belies his ruthless pursuit to break Rachel’s contempt of court.

Nothing but the Truth premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September of 2008, with a limited American release planned for December of that year. But when the film’s production company filed for Chapter 11 protection, that pretty much ended hopes for a theatrical release permanently. The film was finally released, on DVD, in April 2009 by Sony Home Entertainment. Curiously, all the current attacks on the press actually make the film even more relevant today than it might have been when originally scheduled for release. Floyd Abrams, who portrays Judge Hall in the film, was in fact one of the lawyers defending The New York Times and Judith Miller in the grand jury investigation of the Valerie Plame case; initially he was hired by the production as a consultant before being cast as Judge Hall by director Rod Lurie. A more specific movie dramatization of the “Plamegate” scandal was released in 2010 as Fair Game starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, adapted from Valerie Plame’s own 2007 memoir of the story.

 

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