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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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”.

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