Some have already built the coffin and engraved the tombstone for traditional journalism. With network news divisions and daily newspapers cutting their budgets, coupled with the rise of online reporting, the landscape has changed and expanded, allowing more voices to participate in narratives that were once controlled by only a select few gatekeepers. This new era is still in its nascent stages, and certainly, the broadened field of those who call themselves “journalists” doesn’t always adhere to the strictest of journalistic standards. Many in the media lament this supposed loss of consistency in this new school of reporters, but taking that line paints an inaccurate portrait of the old way of doing things. However, it’s a myth writer/director James Vanderbilt is more than happy to reinforce in his unambiguously titled, “Truth.”
Based on the memoir by Mary Mapes, which also features an unambiguous title, “Truth And Duty,” the film tells the headline-grabbing story about the “60 Minutes” report she produced, was presented by Dan Rather (played by Robert Redford here), which alleged that strings were pulled in the 1970s that allowed George W. Bush to enlist in the National Guard in order to avoid serving in Vietnam. It’s explosive stuff, and some would say it’s even likely true, but Mapes’ reporting quickly came under scrutiny, leading to an internal investigation by CBS, that put the careers of Mapes and Rather on the line, all while the 2004 election, occurring just a few months after the broadcast aired, hung in the balance.
On paper, it’s a terrific story, filled with intrigue, high-level power playing, and a great opportunity to investigate where media interests and political control intersect. However, Vanderbilt chooses to present the tale with a lighter comic touch in the early stages, and it’s a tone the picture can’t overcome in its final third. Played by Cate Blanchett, Mapes is a tough-as-nails reporter whose bark is just a prelude to her bite. Making up her core investigative team on the Bush case is ex-military and Pentagon man Colonel Roger Charles, played by a permanently grinning Dennis Quaid, which makes it seem that the character thinks the entire proceedings are a joke. There’s Mike Smith, played by Topher Grace, who likes flannel shirts, junk food, and never trusting the man. And then there’s journalism professor Lucy Scott, who is portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, in a performance that seems to have been mostly cut from the movie.
“Truth” is rather perfunctory in its first half, with Vanderbilt dully going through the nuts and bolts as Mapes and her team put together the pieces of their story. Even early on, documents are hard to verify and the paper trail seems thin, and while some questions are raised, Mapes presses on with the great conviction. Not surprisingly, things get more interesting in the second half of the movie, when Mapes faces serious questions about the veracity of her sources. And it’s at this crucial juncture where Vanderbilt too easily sides with Mapes, and ironically, fails to ask the tough questions of the protagonist and her work that need to be addressed.
By any objective standard watching the film, Mapes’ story is far from rock solid. Two documents in particular, which are something of a smoking gun to the theory of Bush dodging the Vietnam war, are unverifiable photocopies. One witness who “confirms” the content of those documents does so over the phone, without actually seeing them for himself. And while a Texas governor admits he was involved in getting Bush’s name in front of the right people to put him in the National Guard, it’s not enough to hang an entire story around. But according to Mapes and Vanderbilt, because the central tenet of the story is (reportedly) true, that’s all that matters.
For the screenwriter who penned “Zodiac,” which was about the sometimes unsatisfying obsessive hunt for facts, and the real answer to a horrific question, Vanderbilt is much more naive in his feature directorial debut. The film is all too eager to slide by what are legitimate concerns about Mapes’ reporting on this story. Was she rushing her usual process to meet a fast approaching broadcast deadline? Should the documents have been better scrutinized? Could there have been a stronger foundation on which to build the story? Undoubtedly. However, the picture wants us to believe these points of contention are just distractions from the truth, and there are many false arguments thrown up to justify this argument.
Dan Rather bemoans the loss of the “public trust,” and the rise of the blogosphere that asks hard questions about news reports (isn’t this a good thing?). Mike Smith makes an impassioned speech that presents a conspiracy theory about why CBS’ parent company Viacom might want to make the Bush story go away. Or maybe CBS was looking for an excuse to let go of Dan Rather a year before his contract was up. The film presents a variety of poisons to pick from to point the blame elsewhere, but never seriously considers that maybe Mapes’ reporting was lacking. “Truth” even caps off the film by reminding viewers that before the Bush controversy, her previous “60 Minutes” story about the inhuman treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to a shocked nation, won a Peabody award — but that doesn’t forgive questions, politically motivated for not, that are not unreasonable to be asked about Mapes’ Bush report. And it’s this lack of nuance and objectivity, which turns a potentially complex film into a simple, mostly one-note message movie.
The cast play their roles with dignity, even if they aren’t given much dimension. This particularly cripples Redford as Dan Rather, who winds up being left with the most to lose as the Bush story goes south. But the film would have us believe he comfortably rolled with the punches as his reputation was dragged through the mud, while playing America’s paternal courier of journalistic courage right to the end. Meanwhile, Blanchett eagerly steps into the role of the scrappy Mapes, and though her part is both precise and predictably played, it’s not a great shock that when given the shot to utilize a few more muscles, she knocks it out of the park. A heartbreaking telephone conversation between Mapes and her father is genuinely moving, and Blanchett is beautifully brittle in a key deposition scene. However, both sequences occur late in the picture, and fail to balance the rest of the movie, which mostly feels like a timeline summary of the true story, than an insightful investigation of how the objectivity, morality, and ethics can sometimes blur during the course of political reporting, even if inadvertently.
“Truth” isn’t flashily shot, and doesn’t have any technical tricks up its sleeve — instead it wants Mapes’ dedication to shake the power structure that buried the real story of Bush’s military service to be the film’s fireworks, and a wake-up call to the nation. But what exactly it wants the audience to open their eyes and see is unclear. For all the clarity the title of the film implies as a quasi statement of intent, its conclusion couldn’t be more fuzzy. [C]