Saturday, October 31, 2015
Truth takes place in the weeks before the 2004 election, when a 60 Minutes report alleged that President George W. Bush had gone AWOL from the Texas National Guard in the early 1970’s. The documents that CBS News used to support the story were almost immediately called into question, and CBS subsequently apologized for the story. 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) was fired after an investigation, and iconic anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) left the network a few months later. If writer/director James Vanderbilt - working from Mapes’s book about the story - had let us play reporter along with his characters then Truth might have been a thoughtful piece of entertainment. However, Truth is too hung up on its characters’ ideals. Vanderbilt’s screenplay becomes didactic on the notion of what constitutes “journalistic integrity” and the result is a frustrating missed opportunity.
Mary Mapes was a well-established producer at the time that the Bush story came up; Truth opens with 60 Minutes airing the Mapes-produced story of U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and then being given free reign by her bosses to report whatever story crosses her radar. The idea that Mapes, Rather, and their colleagues all went to a bar after the story aired feels like a Sorkinesque touch, but more on that later. The true provenance of the Bush documents, especially a memo in which a commanding officer refuses to evaluate Bush because he hasn’t been on base, will probably never be known. Truth hints at a hidden world of Texas good-old-boys with an axe to grind against the Bush family, but the colonel (Stacy Keach) who hands over the documents to Mapes and her researcher (Topher Grace) is the only one who’s individualized. Vanderbilt chooses instead to stay with the slowly eroding certainty of Mapes and her team (which also includes characters played by Elisabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid) that the documents are genuine, even as the right-wing blogosphere charges that they could have been recreated on Microsoft Word.
Near the end of Truth Mapes is made to appear before a panel investigating the way CBS reported the Bush story. She denies a question about whether she and her team found Bush “guilty until proven innocent”, but the charge sticks. The central error that Truth makes is its insistence that asking the question is paramount. There’s little sense of the process that Mapes’s team went through to arrive at the decision to run the story other than the involvement of a couple of document experts, one of who is skeptical about their veracity and one who is cut out of the story because he isn’t a good interview. Blanchett’s Mapes is a harried everywoman who as the film goes on becomes increasingly unstrung. It’s a carefully worked out performance, but again Blanchett is done no favors by a script that gives her character a single motivation. Vanderbilt’s version of Mapes is a woman in search of a father figure who unintentionally ignores her husband (John Benjamin Hickey) and lives to please Dan Rather. The casting of Robert Redford as Rather is an odd choice since Redford - All the President’s Men excepted - isn’t an actor known for disappearing into the role of a living person. Still, Redford gets at the weird, detached quality Rather sometimes has, and his fall from grace at CBS now feels like the end of era.
Both Mapes and Rather are given speeches about journalistic values in the last scenes of Truth that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Newsroom episode. If only James Vanderbilt hadn’t felt the need to teach us a lesson, because there is a good movie to be made about the Bush documents and the way that CBS handled (or mishandled ) the story. The irony is, it’s the questions that CBS didn’t ask that mean we’ll probably never know the truth.