Fallout from a news broadcast
n Truth, a compelling new film about the scandal that rocked the trailblazing American version of 60 Minutes and its veteran host, Dan Rather, in 2004, Cate Blanchett gives a performance to rival her Oscarwinning turn in Blue Jasmine. She is magnificent as Mary Mapes, a 60 Minutes producer and long-time friend and colleague of Rather, who is played with just the right touch of old-world professionalism by Robert Redford. You’d think that the presence of these two iconic performers in a film produced in Australia with a top crew of local craftspeople, led by cinematographer Mandy Walker, and a supporting cast that includes a roster of our local talent, would be promoted as another local achievement. Instead, you’ll be lucky to find the film, which is only screening in the most limited release.
The film is an adaptation of Mapes’s book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power, and it’s been written for the screen by James Vanderbilt, who scripted David Fincher’s excellent Zodiac (2007). Truth is Vanderbilt’s debut as director, and he does an excellent job in making intelligible the sometimes complex behind-the-scenes world of television current affairs and the pressures and compromises involved in bringing up-to-the-minute news into the homes of a nation. Foremost among America’s current affairs programs was 60 Minutes, and veteran Rather was a household name (“I was there when they discovered news could make money,” he notes, wryly.)
Mapes and Rather had just scored a success with their expose of torture in Abu Ghraib prison when Mapes began investigating a story that suggested president George W. Bush had used his family connections to avoid military service in Vietnam in 1968 and had instead scored a cushy posting to the Texas Air National Guard through the intervention of Ben Barnes (Philip Quast, the first of many Australian actors in key supporting roles), who was the Texas lieutenant governor at the time. More evidence emerges in copies of letters written in 1972-73 by Bush’s then commander, lieutenant colonel Jerry Killian, which suggest Bush’s record was far from exemplary.
Mapes and her research team — which includes Vietnam veteran Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), journalism professor Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) and freelance writer Mike Smith (Topher Grace) — have to authenticate these documents, employing among others a handwriting expert (Nicholas Hope). The story goes to air and, not surprisingly, results in a storm of protest, both from conservative news sources and other TV networks. Mapes and Rather staunchly defend their work, but it all seems to be falling apart as some of the players contradict their earlier statements.
For anyone remotely interested in current affairs and the news media, this would have to be handled pretty poorly for it not to be fascinating, but in fact Vanderbilt and his team have done exemplary work in bringing this story to the screen. Blanchett’s Mapes is portrayed not only as a driven journalist but also as a devoted wife and mother whose work invariably gets in the way of her private life, while the hardworking members of her production team are a believably dedicated bunch.
In one of the finest scenes, the man who supplied the disputed Killian letters, retired lieutenant colonel Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), reluctantly agrees to be interviewed by Rather about why he failed to tell the whole truth about their origin. Burkett is obviously unwell, but Rather, urged on by CBS executive Betsy West (Rachael Blake), reluctantly browbeats the man until his wife (a magnificent Noni Hazlehurst) blows her top with a wonderful speech that captures all the ambiguities of the drama.
I’ve already mentioned several Australian actors who play significant supporting roles in the film, but there are more: Andrew McFarlane, Felix Williamson, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Helmut Bakaitis, Steve Bastoni, Martin Sacks, Zahra Newman and David Lyons among them.
So why is the film’s release so small? The answer is most probably a hard commercial decision. The film performed disappointingly at the US box office and is probably perceived as telling a specifically American story that will have little interest for Australian audiences. There’s truth in that, but it’s still disappointing that more hasn’t been made of the quality work of the local actors and crew, or even of Blanchett’s terrific lead performance.
Whatever the reason, the film, one of the best of the year, is strongly recommended to serious filmgoers. But you’ll have to be quick to catch it on the big screen. In a week when Japan has announced that it is resuming its repulsive “scientific” whaling in the Antarctic, I can’t say I was eager to see Ron Howard’s new film, In the Heart of the Sea, which has to do with the New England whaling industry in the 19th century and, specifically, the genesis of Herman Melville’s great novel Moby-Dick.
Ben Whishaw plays Melville and the film revolves around his meeting with Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the lone survivor of the whaling ship Essex, which was destroyed by an enormous whale many years earlier when Nickerson was a young man (played by Tom Holland). The story Nickerson tells the author becomes the basis for one of the most celebrated books in the English language.
There have been previous film versions of
Moby-Dick- the Sea Moby-Dick; in 1930, the great John Barrymore played Captain Ahab in an early talkie version of the novel and 26 years later John Huston directed an ambitious version with a miscast Gregory Peck as Ahab (Orson Welles, who played Father Mapple in one scene in Huston’s film, would have been far more convincing as the obsessive Ahab). Howard, rather than attempt a new version of the novel, has relied heavily on the skills of his visual effects teams to tell the “real” story.
The ill-fated Essex is commanded by Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), an upperclass snob in constant conflict with his workingclass first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth); Chase is miffed because he was promised the captaincy and resents having to take orders from Pollard. Thus the stage is set for the same sort of conflict that motivated Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian in the stories of the Bounty.
Whaling was deemed necessary in the 19th century as providing oil for the lamps of the civilised world, but that doesn’t make the impressively staged scenes in which the unfortunate animals are harpooned and slaughtered any more palatable. The great white whale itself is an imposing creation, but Howard’s skills as a storyteller — evident in some of his earlier work — seem muted here, and the result is a turgid slog rather than a stirring adventure.
Chris Hemsworth as first mate Owen Chase in the related In the Heart of
Cate Blanchett is magnificent as CBS producer Mary Mapes in Truth