“This movie has no dragons or robots or sex,” Dan Rather proudly stated about the upcoming drama “Truth,” “but my hope is that it will broaden a new conversation. I want it to spark up a new, broader discussion about the importance of the free, independent and necessary press as part of the red beating heart of democracy and freedom.”
Joining moderator Alec Baldwin at the Hamptons International Film Festival over the weekend, the famed reporter wasted no time in confessing his mistakes to the packed theater. “Truth,” writer-director James Vanderbilt’s drama about the darkest period of Rather’s career, finds Robert Redford stepping into the anchor chair as the iconic journalist, a casting decision the real Rather finds to be a “surreal experience” that “he’s still trying to process.” The movie gets to the bottom of the 2004 Killian documents scandal, or what many now call “Rathergate.”
During a September 2004 segment on CBS’ “60 Minutes II,” Rather and producer Mary Mapes (played by a searing Cate Blanchett in the film) aired a story uncovering George W. Bush’s involvement in the Air National Guard from 1972-73. Based on documents the pair had come in contact with, Rather reported that Bush had been AWOL from the Guard for over a year. Right wing and conservative media attacked the two after finding the documents to be fabricated, and the resulting scandal made national headlines and cost Rather and Mapes their jobs from CBS.
“We made some mistakes,” Rather vulnerably admitted to the crowd. “If we had to do it over again would I do things differently? Of course. Journalism is not a precise science. I did at the time what I thought was journalistically and ethically the right thing to do. Our story was true…They couldn’t attack the truth of the story, so they attacked the process by which we arrived at the truth — was it flawed? Yes, it was flawed. Was it more flawed than it should have been? Yes. Am I responsible for some of that? Yes. This is the point: The story was true. It was true then, it was true now.”
Rather’s conviction earned applause from the Hamptons crowd, and he continued to be adamant about the truth behind the story that derailed his career with CBS. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts,” he said. “After [George W. Bush] got in to this special unit of the Guard, he did at least reasonably well as a pilot but then he disappeared for a year. Nobody disappears from the U.S. military for a year without reporting it…We made mistakes, but hold us responsible for what we did — recognize that as flawed as it was, we got to some basic truths. We got to some facts.”
Rather’s faulty reporting forced him out of the network news business after more than four decades on the job, and watching CBS try to erase his acclaimed track record from their history books has been painful for the 83-year-old newsman. While talking about reconciling with his departure from CBS, he admitted to missing the camaraderie of the news team most.
Rather ended with a list of his favorite journalism movies — “Network,” “Broadcast News” and back-to-back Robert Redford vehicles “All the President’s Men” and “Up Close and Personal” — though he feels more than confident that “Truth” trumps them all and rises to the very top of the genre.
“I have no financial interest in ‘Truth,'” he clarified, “but I don’t think there’s anything that’s been on the big screen that shows you how investigative reports work — what the craft is — as well as this film. It takes you inside how the sausage is made. If you want to know what it’s really like to be inside the newsroom and out on the streets and on the phone, this is the best that’s ever been on the big screen.”
“Truth” opens in select theaters this Friday, October 16. Watch an exclusive clip from the HIFF talk above, in which Rather speaks to whether or not his reporting on the Killian documents story was an anomaly.