Fallout from a news broad­cast

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

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

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