UNDER FIRE IN BUSH WAR
Beleaguered journalists Mary Mapes and Dan Rather proved to be fascinating roles to play, Truth stars Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford tell Michael Bodey
Late last year, office workers in Sydney’s CBD were none the wiser as cinema luminaries worked among them. Two of the world’s great actors, Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, performed upstairs in a nondescript Castlereagh Street office block whose interior had been dressed up to resemble a New York television newsroom circa 2004. Blanchett and Redford were returning to territory familiar from two of their more appealing performances: journalism.
Convention suggests it’s futile telling stories about journalists, because no one has any empathy for them. Yet Redford’s performance as investigative reporter Bob Woodward in 1976’s All the President’s Men, the thriller about the Watergate scandal, and Blanchett’s portrayal of the crusading Irish journalist Veronica Guerin in the eponymously titled film are not only among their more memorable performances, they are also ones in which the actors imbued their characters with an alluring empathy.
Blanchett betters that performance in Truth, in which she stars as Mary Mapes, the feisty producer for seminal CBS current affairs program 60 Minutes who, with revered anchorman Dan Rather, pursued a story that wouldn’t stay silent: the apparently dubious military record of then president and commander-in-chief George W. Bush.
It will, however, be another film about relentless and resilient journalists that will this receive the awards recognition this summer: Spotlight, which dramatises the chase to reveal the Catholic Church’s cover-up of abuse in Boston, got the ball rolling this week when it was named best film by the Gotham Awards in New York.
Truth, though, more than holds its own as a thoughtful, if occasionally verbose, look at journalism during, as Redford puts it, “a point in time when it was one way”.
Today, the 79-year-old notes, journalism has headed in a different direction.
“This shows an incident within a larger framework. Now journalism at large is not so much under threat, it’s already changed so much,” he says.
“It’s not like it was. Now it’s another way [and] journalism is going to continue to go through dark times. I don’t know where it’s going to end up. This [story] will be like a museum piece,” he adds with a wry laugh.
If so, it’s a museum piece with volatile provenance and still no resolution to the question that brought down Mapes and Rather: were the documents alleging preferential treatment, purportedly from the files of Bush’s former commanding officer lieutenant colonel Jerry B. Killian, genuine?
Yet that question is almost a McGuffin in a tale led by two charismatic characters speaking truth to power. Truth isn’t a story about the genesis and questioning of a controversial news story; rather it is a discussion — like some of Redford’s recent films such as Lions for Lambs — about politics, media, power and perception.
Blanchett says she loved James Vanderbilt’s story because there were many ways in which he could have approached the series of events, but ultimately his film “actually raises more questions than it answers”.
“There’s no take on it, so I feel it’s presenting a moment in time when the political atmosphere was so toxic and rancid and these people were at the beginning of attack politics, bringing people down and character assassinations,” Blanchett says. Any analysis or criticism of the Bush administration was “put in the firing line”, she says.
Rather and Mapes were big targets. And Bush’s service record was up for scrutiny as the military record of his Democratic opponent, decorated Vietnam War veteran John Kerry, was being pilloried by conservative groups in the so-called Swift Boat attacks.
“So we witness that happening, but the film doesn’t ask the audience to side with anyone in particular or pass judgments,” Blanchett continues. “Hopefully it’s going to throw an audience out into quite an interesting conversation.”
Vanderbilt made his name as a screenwriter for David Fincher’s Zodiac and two The Amazing Spider-Man films before making this screenplay his first directing task. He agrees with Blanchett, noting it was important the film showed what the characters experienced and believed “rather than taking an objective position and saying here’s what happened”.
“It’s not trying to convince the audience of a point of view, it’s just going on the journey,” he says, adding that this story, in some respects, is a “fulcrum point in American journalism” when those in politics realised attack, on whatever basis, was the best form of defence. “For many political sides this has been the brief going forward,” Vanderbilt says with a sigh.
That said, the film offers an element of redemption for Rather and Mapes, both of whom visited the Sydney set. Indeed, after Redford informs Blanchett he had a drink with Mapes the night before, he marvels: “You’re so right. Gee, you’re so right [playing her].”
Both actors enthuse about the complexities of their characters while averring that Truth is more about process and character than whether the journalists were right or wrong.
And as producer Andrew Spaulding observes, “If anything, it reminds the audience that that question — did Bush go AWOL — is not answered and may not be answerable.” Although Rather and Mapes had no editorial control, did their presence on the set confuse matters in any way?
“It’s not the most comfortable thing,” Redford says with a smile.
Vanderbilt concedes that telling Rather and Mapes about the film was like delivering good news as well as bad news, despite the fact that his screenplay was adapted from Mapes’s book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power. “The good news is I want to make a movie about your lives; the bad news is I want to make a movie about a period of your life that was absolutely the worst thing that ever happened to you,” he says. “They both very much know this is not a movie about how great everybody is.”
Both journalists had been good for CBS News — before this imbroglio, Mapes made her name producing a breakthrough story about abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq — and CBS had been good to them.
Then, Blanchett says, “you witness two people whose houses are on fire, watch them navigate their way through a crisis that is at once professional but then becomes profoundly personal”.