James Vanderbilt may be a somewhat familiar name by now. Ever since his breakout gig writing the script for David Fincher’s Zodiac, Vanderbilt has taken part in such high-profile projects as White House Down and both of the Amazing Spider-Man films, in addition to a lesser comic adaptation called The Losers.
Given that resume, it may sound odd that Vanderbilt decided to write and co-produce a movie about the notorious 60 Minutes scandal in 2004 that famously destroyed Dan Rather’s credibility and ended his career. And then to make that movie his directorial debut. Yet surprisingly, Truth turned out to be quite good.
Rather himself is played by Robert Redford, but our protagonist is actually Mary Mapes (played here by Cate Blanchett). She’s the news producer who spearheaded the search for documents about George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard, and was eventually fired for failing to sufficiently confirm the authenticity of those documents. Incidentally, Mapes is also the producer who broke the story about Abu Ghraib, which (as a title card tells us at the end) won CBS a Peabody after they fired her. How’s that for a kick in the ass?
As portrayed in the film, it’s not like Mapes and her crew went about making stuff up and it’s not like nobody asked any questions. It’s more like there are plenty of ambiguities and a lot of conflicting evidence, because everyone is presenting a different story. Nobody wants the truth out, they just want to cover their asses and affect the election according to their own agenda. Everybody’s hiding something and everyone has ulterior motives. And of course time is of the essence, because this news has to break well in advance of the election and the news crew is fighting for air time against Dr. Phil, Survivor, and the rest of the stuff that actually pays the bills.
Put simply, this news crew is shown doing the best they can with what they have. That means limited funds, limited manpower, limited time, and pressure from the network to churn out some nice juicy sound bites. Oh, and they’re also stuck with sources who refuse to go on the record for such a highly sensitive issue, or even flat-out lie on the record and recant after shit has already hit the fan. So there’s no guarantee that anything reliable now will prove to be just as reliable with 20/20 hindsight.
Yet Mapes continues to justify this journalistic enterprise on the grounds that minor details are insignificant next to the greater truth. She reasons that even if the documents themselves aren’t authentic, they are still emblematic of what was really going on at the time. Plus, given that such a forgery had to have been made by someone with advanced and intimate knowledge of Lt. George W. Bush and his contemporaries in the Texas Air National Guard, clearly something was up.
But here’s the thing: That “greater truth” was that President George Bush II dodged the Vietnam draft by using political influence to get into the National Guard, where he proceeded to do the bare minimum of work if that. Thirty years ago. Sorry, but that doesn’t rile nearly as much anger as crooked journalism would. There’s also the fact that in a case this high-profile, with such potentially volatile consequences for everyone involved, anyone with half a brain would never have ran with it unless it was 100 percent bulletproof. No matter what Mapes and her team did to identify the documents (in the film, anyway), running with copies of documents from such an incredibly shady source — who claims that the original documents were burned and refuses to say where the copies came from — was just plain stupid.
On the other hand, we mustn’t forget that pressure to churn out news and get ratings.
That said, Mapes isn’t portrayed in such a way that she really seems to care about ratings or politics. For her, this is all about standing up to bullies. The movie makes a very big deal about her dysfunctional upbringing with an abusive father who’d beat her for talking and asking questions. So she has a huge problem with people who abuse their power and she has a natural urge to fight those who stand in her way. And that’s a problem when Mapes starts going against political activists, lawyers, executives, and other such individuals who thrive on conflict. Mapes keeps on digging herself ever deeper because she won’t stop fighting, she won’t stop asking questions, and she won’t ever admit to making a mistake.
At some point, it begs the question of when something becomes so tarnished that it isn’t worth fighting for anymore. When do journalists have to quit playing the watchdog and just give the people what they want? Even if it means putting their neck on a block?
Cate Blanchett is positively magnetic in this role. She does an alarmingly good job of playing someone who lives in a state of being constantly wound-up, and it’s spectacular when all of that tension is released. The highest compliment I can pay Blanchett is that there were so many times when I was fooled into seeing a character on the screen, instead of an actor flexing muscles for the Academy voters.
Additionally, though Dan Rather is presented as more of a figurehead and a moral standard for the rest of the characters, Robert Redford does a damn fine job of it. Redford is already a living legend with so many years of experience that he has nothing left to prove, and that’s exactly what he brings to the portrayal of Rather. He presents Rather as the last of a dying breed, one who’s determined to hold up an old standard with integrity and grace, and to lead the next generation by example. He considers it a solemn duty to make the world a better place through curiosity and insight, and he shows a very strong hesitance to hurt his coworkers or his sources through his work. Which he sadly has to do, given the cutthroat nature of political journalism today.
Through Rather, the film mourns the downfall of professional journalism, as so much of it gets tied up in money, politics, boldfaced lies, internet bloggers, and so on. The internet raises the demand for accuracy in journalism even as it takes away the capability to deliver on that accuracy. Put simply, Rather and all that he represents was made into a relic of a bygone era. Whether that’s for the better or worse is up for the viewer to decide.
Alas, the downside of starring Blanchett and Redford at the top of their game is that the supporting cast will look a lot less memorable by comparison. Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, David Lyons, and David Mulroney all barely leave an impression. It’s great to see Dennis Quaid acting like he gives a shit, but it’s apparently been so long that he’s out of practice. Surprisingly, Topher Grace seems to come out on top — his smarmy persona actually does the character a lot of favors, and his big dramatic speech is done surprisingly well.
As for miscellaneous notes, I’m sorry to say that the score was way, way too melodramatic for the movie’s own good. By a similar token, other critics have said that the film is too verbose, and I can see where they’re coming from. I mean, it’s a movie about journalism, so of course we’re going to have a lot of people talking. There’s an effort to make all the info-dumps more entertaining, and I appreciate that, but it’s tough to argue that a more experienced director would have easily done a better job of it.
I should also mention that the editing leaves a lot to be desired. There are some pretty bad montages to be found here, and some scenes were quite obviously truncated in very sloppy ways. On the other hand, the camerawork is alarmingly good in places. I could point to at least two or three shots that are simply inspired.
Overall, I have no problem giving Truth a passing grade. Redford and Blanchett both give performances that demand to be seen, and the movie raises a ton of important questions that demand to be asked. Plus, considering that this is a debut director taking on such heavy material, the film could have and probably should have been a whole lot worse. I’d say that makes it easily worth a watch, even if the proceedings do get a little heavy-handed and talkative at times.
That said, you’d be forgiven for waiting until Spotlight comes out. That’s another movie about investigative journalism, and everything I’ve seen and heard about it is overwhelmingly good.