The flip side to the famous Alan Pakula film, “All the President’s Men,” where an investigation by two Washington Post reporters got to the bottom of Watergate and brought down the Nixon presidency, “Truth” tells the enormously complicated and thorny tale of an investigation by CBS journos into a sitting president that went off the rails.
The broadcast on the evening of September 8, 2004 on “60 Minutes II,” produced by Mary Mapes and reported by the venerable CBS News anchor Dan Rather, delved into allegations President George W. Bush not only avoided serving in the Vietnam War by joining the Texas Air National Guard through family connections, he actually failed for many months to fulfill his basic Guard obligations. He never showed up on base.
The following day a shit-storm hit the Internet as conservative bloggers insisted the documents that partially backed up these assertions were fake. CBS was never able to mount a full-fledged counter offensive as the story, rushed to air on a tight deadline, contained numerous flaws in basic journalism.
What got lost in the media finger pointing, however, was the veracity of the story itself. The conservatives had successfully changed the subject: Were the documents false instead of where was Bush during those months when no one could testify he ever appeared on the base to which he was assigned? And how did he get into the Guard in the first place?
Eleven years after this controversial broadcast these questions are still caught up in partisan politics. Conservatives, even those now doubtful about the Bush legacy, insist this was a fake story by a liberal-biased media while liberals will always see the counterattack as a snow job.
So how do you review the movie itself, you know, such things as does Cate Blanchett deliver one of her best performances in the role of Mary Mapes or does Robert Redford do justice to Dan Rather?
Already a new attack campaign has emerged in social media against the film, which is based on Mapes 2005 book “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.” Right-wing loggers and harrumphing online Oscar pundits are pushing back against the film, calling it a whitewash of Mapes’ shoddy journalism.
Which means a push back against Oscar noms for anyone involved including Blanchett. Do we care? Does truth or rather “Truth” ever matter?
That title itself, no doubt, serves as a red flag for some. Is this film now purporting to tell the truth about the whole fiasco? Or is the film, very well written and directed by James Vanderbilt, about something else — the elusiveness of truth in journalism and in history and in normal everyday lives?
With an issue such as global warming, one’s position on its existence and on humans’ contribution to it is a political position, not a scientific one. The science is clear but for many people such facts are not only inconvenient but threaten a political point of view favored by them. So these folks must deny the existence of global warming.
Similarly, many refuse to address the basic facts in the “60 Minutes” story, preferring to get lost in the minutia of document typefaces, line breaks and superscripts of the document copies themselves. If you disprove the documents, or at least show they can’t be proven to be real beyond a reasonable doubt, then Bush’s National Guard mystery simply disappears.
But to return to my original point, what about the movie as a movie? The story is constructed with precision and clarity, an astonishing feat given the complexity of the entire issue both in terms of journalism and politics. You follow the narrative, its subplots and characters with surprising ease.
You would like more detail at nearly every juncture, not to mention more background on the personalities involved at CBS’ Black Rock headquarters in New York City. But given the realities of a two-hour movie, this is as good as you can get.
Blanchett is the star here, no question. You catch her character at the peak of her profession — months earlier Mapes broke the Abu Ghraib story of torture at that military prison in Iraq, a report which would earn a Peabody Award. You then witness her exhaustive research and burrowing, burrowing, burrowing for more facts, witnesses and documents, only for the whole thing to unravel.
This is a great performance. It’s surrounded by competent work by all the other actors but nothing I would call outstanding. The trouble is, given the need for speed in telling this story, introductions are truncated or non-existent: Oh, this is a field reporter from — or, no, perhaps he’s the president of CBS News. People come and go that rapidly.
Redford as Rather is a challenge. Each man is more or less equally as famous in his own right. It probably was a bad idea to cast Redford as the CBS anchor since he never stops reminding you of Redford. He gets a bit of the vocal inflections of Texas native right or close to, but he really doesn’t look much like the guy who entered our collective living rooms for so many, many years.
Stacy Keach as Bill Burkett, one of Mapes’ key sources, has several fine moments as does Noni Hazelhurst as his flustered wife Nicki. Bruce Greenwood as CBS News president Andrew Heyward paints that corporate veneer perfectly, one meant to shield him from blowback and isolate him from those he can blame.
Elizabeth Moss as journalism professor Lucy Scott, Topher Grace as researcher Mike Smith and even Dennis Quaid as Lt. Col. Roger Charles get lost in the shuffle. You know they’re all on Mapes’ team but unsure what their individual responsibilities are other than to sit at conference tables and frown or smile according to what has just happened.
This inability to spend time with the dramatis personae of “Truth” is not unlike the fatal flaw in the CBS report itself: not enough time. In a rush to an early air date, and in calculations related to the vagaries of network scheduling and an honest attempt to avoid an “October surprise” just before the November election — caused the CBS team to opt for an early date to air before everyone, in truth, has his ducks lined up.
The result turned out to be duck soup.
As a former deadline journalist myself, I was intrigued by all the hard work yet mistakes that went into the final report. I am well aware of what can go wrong and how studiously journalists seek to void such pitfalls.
Yet this CBS team, not because of any political bias, convinced themselves their case was air tight when it was not. Editing up to airtime and with Rather informed but not fully involved, the show went out with enormous flaws. No question.
But the larger question this film seeks to address is where is Truth in all this? Perhaps a casualty of (media) war. The guts of the original story certainly never had anything to do with typefaces, line breaks or superscripts.
Opens: October 16, 2015 (Sony Classics Pictures)
Production company: Ratpac Entertainment presents in association with Echo Lake Entertainment and Blue LakeMedia Fund a Mythology Entertainment production in association with Dirty Films
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, John Benjamin Hickey, Dermot Mulroney, Dennis Quaid, Noni Hazelhurst
Director/screenwriter: James Vanderbilt
Based on the book by: Mary Mapes
Producers: Brad Fischer, William Sherak, James Vanderbilt, Brett Ratner, Doug Mankoff, Andrew Spaulding
Executive producer: Mikkel Bondesen
Director of photography: Mandy Walker
Production designer: Fiona Crombie
Music: Brian Tyler
Costume designer: Amanda Neale
Editor: Richard Francis-Bruce
R rating, 121 minutes