TRUTH, drama, rated R, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
The movies are serving up real people these days, and serving them up fast. David Foster Wallace tours again with a brilliant assist from Jason Segel. Steve Jobs is barely horizontal, and he’s back and bigger than life, resuscitated by director Danny Boyle and embodied by Michael Fassbender. (It’s not even Jobs’ first return: A couple of years ago Ashton Kutcher had a go at him.)
Dan Rather isn’t even dead, and he’s getting his turn in Truth, an impressively accomplished first feature directed by James Vanderbilt, the writer-producer who has previously given us another superhero, The Amazing Spider-Man.
Rather, the CBS Evening News anchor and 60 Minutes correspondent who fell from grace over the story described in this film, is portrayed here by Robert Redford. It must be a bizarre experience for Rather, a little like Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral. The first time we see Rather, another character introduces him: “I give you … Dan Rather!” And Redford comes on, and you think, “That’s not Dan Rather; that’s Robert Redford!” But give him time. Redford nails his subject’s manner and mannerisms, and (despite his ginger hair instead of Rather’s gray) it’s not long before you’re willingly suspending disbelief.
The scandal that toppled Rather and his 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) was over a story on George W. Bush’s military service that aired in September 2004, during the heated Bush-Kerry presidential campaign. Mapes got hold of documents and testimony that appeared to show preferential treatment in getting Bush into the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War and his subsequent unauthorized absences from duty. The documents were later challenged as forgeries, and the authentication process on which Mapes and her team relied was called into serious question. A firestorm of criticism started on the conservative blogosphere and quickly spread into the mainstream media. In the subsequent fallout, CBS fired Mapes and several co-workers, and Rather was forced into an abrupt retirement.
The film, which is based on Mapes’ 2005 memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, uses a Newsroom-style inside-journalism intensity to trace the anatomy of this disaster. The movie doesn’t try to disguise the enthusiasm that Mapes and her team bring to the Bush story. Rumors about the president’s service had been circulating for several years, and when a former Texas National Guard officer, Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), contacts 60 Minutes with military performance records that appear to show frustration with Bush by his former (now deceased) commanding officer, Mapes pounces. She vets the material with handwriting experts and corroborating witnesses. But pressure to get the story on the air quickly (60 Minutes was facing preemptions by Billy Graham and Dr. Phil specials) leads to some lapses in journalistic judgment. Mapes is inclined to put more weight on the answers she wants to hear and to sweep away the others.
Blanchett is nothing less than brilliant in her portrayal of Mapes as a driven, dedicated, high-strung professional who may have her own opinions but is motivated above all by a commitment to journalistic truth. The movie sketches in a little family history that suggests she was belittled and abused by her father, which led her to a warm father-daughter relationship with Rather. A scene in which she tearfully begs her father to stop pillorying her in the press is one of the movie’s more unfortunate moments. There are a few flights of speechifying, but Blanchett is equal to the task. And the climax of the movie shows Mapes facing an investigative panel assembled by CBS that produces a startling echo of the recent Hillary Clinton Benghazi hearings.
A subtext of this solidly crafted movie is a lament for the demise of television news as journalism independent of its corporate masters and a bottom-line agenda. As to the rest of it, reactions to Truth are going to break down along predictably ideological lines. CBS is refusing to acknowledge or run the movie’s ads. Conservative critics are pillorying it and are scathing in their put-downs of Mapes’ journalistic integrity. Liberal commentators have been generally positive about the movie and more generous in giving a glass-half-full break to her defense of the challenged documents. It is telling that the underlying issue of the 60 Minutes story, the Bush favoritism and his unexcused absences from duty, have generally been absent from the discussion, and little evidence has been advanced to put them to rest.
Rather himself stands by the movie. “This is the best film I’ve seen on the big screen that takes you inside the craft of journalism, and demonstrates how it works, as opposed to how people feel journalism works,” he said recently. “We reported a true story. And there has never been any doubt the story was true.”
Man in the mirror: Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford
Black-tie muckraking: Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett, and Bruce Greenwood