Truth should have been the story of a group of intelligent, experienced, savvy journalists who made a huge collective mistake that took down careers like bowling pins. Instead, James Vanderbilt, an accomplished screenwriter (Zodiac, The Amazing Spider-Man) making his directorial debut, turns the movie into an apologia for the critical errors made by Mary Mapes, an award-winning producer for CBS News and 60 Minutes, and her team of investigators.
In Sept. 2004, two months before the presidential election, a report aired on CBS, anchored by Dan Rather, claiming that President George W. Bush had pulled strings to skip over the long waiting list to join the Texas National Guard in 1968 to avoid the Vietnam draft. The story also claimed that Bush’s superiors falsified his performance records to cover up Bush’s failure to fulfill the requirements of his military service contract for the Guard.
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The reaction to the report, which hinged almost entirely on a series of memos supposedly written by Bush’s former commander, was swift and brutal. What should have been another triumph for Mapes, who had previously broken the story about the regular abuse and torture of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War, quickly became known as “Rathergate.” The crucial memos, critics and rival news organizations claimed, were fakes. Mapes had a personal vendetta against Bush, the White House stated. At first, CBS and Rather dug in and stood by their story. But while putting together a follow-up intended to prove the accuracy of their story, everyone realized the report wouldn’t hold up. Mapes and her team had aimed high and wildly overshot.
The first half of Truth, which was adapted from Mapes’ book about the incident, is a compelling look at how investigative journalists chase after a seemingly impossible story, tracking down reluctant sources, pushing for people to go on the record and occasionally cutting corners in order to meet a looming deadline (Mapes had to rush the story in order for it to air early enough to have an impact on the election). The more detailed the film is about the craft of reporting, the more absorbing it becomes. Cate Blanchett plays Mapes as a determined, scrupulous journalist who knows in her heart she’s on to something and trusts that feeling. As Rather, Robert Redford doesn’t even bother to change his appearance — any type of makeup effects would be distracting — but he captures Rather’s voice and on-air persona with an eerie accuracy.
But in the second half of the film, Vanderbilt’s bias gets in the way of the facts. Truth goes soft when it should be at its hardest, painting Mapes in a victimized light. In one scene, we watch her reading disparaging comments about her work on a conservative website and breaking down in tears. In another, she begs her estranged father to please stop saying mean things about her to other news outlets. Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, as one of Mapes’ researchers, watches as Tom Brokaw reports problems with Rather’s story and laments, “This one mattered.” Topher Grace, another freelancer on Mapes’ team, gets a fiery soliloquy arguing that the only reason CBS got cold feet on the story was due to corporate and stockholder pressure.
And in the film’s climax, when Mapes is cornered into admitting that her reporting was in fact flawed, Blanchett shoots back with a righteous, Oscar-baiting speech about how the truth gets pushed aside in favor of insignificant details — a clear case, she argues, of wagging the dog from the highest levels of power. This would all make for a stirring drama about how sometimes, serious journalism loses to the establishment, but Truth has already shown us that the report wasn’t solid, the sources didn’t hold, there were too many holes and presumptions, and CBS had no choice but to fire all the people involved, including Rather. Truth should have felt like a tragedy, a story about a monumental but fascinating failure of journalism, the flip side to the upcoming Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic church. Instead, Truth wants to make your blood boil. It succeeds — but not in the way the filmmakers intended.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Dennis Quaid, Stacy Keach, John Benjamin Hickey, Dermot Mulroney.
Writer-director: James Vanderbilt.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 121 minutes. Vulgar language. Opens Friday Oct. 30 playing at area theaters.