More than a decade ago, Dan Rather’s prominent broadcast news career hit a tragic snag when his “60 Minutes” report about George W. Bush’s dubious military record was deemed flawed. Rather’s eventual resignation and his subsequent retreat from the national stage overwhelms the greater victim of the fallout: Producer Mary Mapes, who hasn’t worked in television since.
“Truth,” a serious, involving adaptation of Mapes’ 2005 memoir, effectively changes that. While it gives Robert Redford the opportunity to chew on scenery in the role of Rather, much of the movie cedes control to Cate Blachett, who turns Mapes into a brazen hero undone by the courage of her convictions.
Though it never rises to the level of Redford’s finest role as a reporter in “All the President’s Men,” writer-director James Vanderbilt’s drama echoes elements “Good Night and Good Luck” as well as “Shattered Glass” (with which it shares a cinematographer) in its depiction of the thorny politics that plague newsrooms from every direction. Vanderbilt, a longtime screenwriter whose credits include the masterful “Zodiac,” captures that same sense of obsession and the dangerous pathways surrounding it. Mapes, a fast-talking investigative reporter whose “60 Minutes” credits include the Peabody-winning Abu Ghraib story, gets so intensely connected to her next project that she doesn’t fully realize how much she’s playing with fire until it’s too late.
Vanderbilt tracks this saga with an opening scene after Mapes’ downfall, when she asserts her reporting career before recounting the experience of the previous six months. The ensuing flashback follows Mapes from a series of intimate newsroom conversations with her “crack team” of researchers (an underutilized Elizabeth Moss and smarmy Topher Grace). Rather, meanwhile, hovers on the precipice of the emerging story, which centers on Vietnam-era military documentation alleging that Bush received preferential treatment that allowed him to avoid service.
Critiques of the report at the time accused Rather and his cohorts of a liberal agenda, but “Truth” finds them mainly pouring over paperwork and data, eager to validate their evidence every step of the way. Through a series of well-placed calls, Mapes follows the bread crumbs to enough sources able to confirm the documents and run the story — until every one of them recants, presumably under pressure from the White House on the brink of election day. Worse, the network itself seeks to placate the president by putting Mapes in its crosshairs.
At times suffering from over-the-top dialogue, Vanderbilt’s script makes it possible to get wrapped up in Mapes’ aggressive muckraking abilities, which intensifies the drama once she’s accused of recklessness. After an initial 45 minutes, the report airs, and the team’s celebration seems apt. The events of the next two acts take the form of a slow motion tragedy. “Due respect,” says CBS president Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood) when confronting Mapes about suggestions that the report doesn’t hold up. “Did you fuck up?” The question hits hard because everything onscreen prior to that point suggests the opposite.
From there, Mapes faces scrutiny and anger from every direction, while her colleagues attempt to launch a counterattack. Grasping for additional points to validate their research, the CBS team faces the mounting realization that many forces have conspired to take them down. As the junior member of the team, Grace compliments Mapes’ intense behavior with more than a few angry outbursts about the way the media has abandoned him. While not entirely convincing, Grace provides a competent illustration of the way brash idealism can so easily give way to self-destruction, which makes Mapes’ ongoing belief that she can exonerate herself all the more daring.
But that conviction hits a daunting wall once she’s subjected to an endless spiral of abuse, from ruthless internet trolls to the public complaints of her conservative father. Blanchett, a commanding figure who scowls her way through every argument, gives Mapes an involving screen presence that elaborates on the character’s staunch resolve much better than the straightforward script.
While Vanderbilt falls short of giving every exchange an organic quality (“This isn’t a trial, it’s a hunt” typifies the occasional theatrical outbursts), it provides plenty of meaty exchanges for its lead woman in a series of confrontations with the network’s internal investigation. There’s no doubting she’s screwed from the outset, but nevertheless finds a special kind of justice by speaking her mind.
“Truth” manages to showcase Mapes’ dilemma, though it can’t help but simplify the ingredients surrounding it. Redford, while obviously committed to the role and exercising a noticeable amount of restraint, has been saddled with a half-baked part that valorizes Rather to no end. A slow motion sequence following his final “60 Minutes” broadcast typifies this depiction of a flawless hero even as it tracks his dwindling reputation. More than that, with one iconic face playing another, Redford never manages to be a convincing newsman.
Fortunately, “Truth” mostly stays with Mapes, and Blachett embodies her with a delightful spark even as her professional life collapses. Above all else, “Truth” offers up a series of intriguing scenes about Mapes’ vain dedication to her job, which allows a brutal irony to creep in. The strongest moment arrives near the end, when Mapes catches the president on television immediately after the election extolling the freedom of the press. It’s a statement of frustration to which many can relate. As she rolls her eyes and pours a tall glass of wine, “Truth” finally gets real.
“Truth” opens October 16.