In the modern era of the internet and a divisive political climate, the idea of objective truth has become a casualty. Zombie arguments, talking points that survive despite being thoroughly debunked, just won’t die and become repeated for years and years. Many online outlets are less concerned with journalistic integrity and truth than they are with ideological talking points to reinforce the belief structure of its readership. During the contentious presidential election of 2004, Dan Rather and his producer Mary Mapes ran a piece on President George W. Bush that ignited a firestorm of political controversy when the sourcing of the story came under intense scrutiny, leading to the dismissal of both Rather and Mapes. Over a decade later, the center of the story is still under debate across ideological lines, and is now the inspiration for Truth, the directorial debut of screenwriter James Vanderbilt. The film is a riveting portrait of a runaway scandal and a harsh indictment of corporate control over news divisions, but Truth will definitely draw wildly exaggerated reactions depending on individual viewer’s stance on the ideological spectrum.
In adapting Mapes’ book on the whole ordeal, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, Vanderbilt has ensured that many will simply write this film off, not even granting it a moment of consideration. Truth opens with Mapes (Cate Blanchett) in April of 2004, blowing the lid of the Abu Ghraib scandal, where American troops committed abuses against Iraqi prisoners, for 60 Minutes. Her tireless work ethic has earned her the trust of Dan Rather (Robert Redford), one of the few remaining old news men and anchor of the CBS Evening News. Mapes can only bask in the glory of a journalistic triumph for so long before setting her sights on her next story – questioning the official story behind George W. Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard. She had previously attempted to tackle the story in 2000, but the death of her mother left her sidetracked, unable to finish the story. Following a lead from the former Lt. Governor of Texas, Ben Barnes (Phillip Quast), who claims that he got Bush into the National Guard to avoid service in Vietnam, Mapes puts together a team of journalists to sift through the files and follow every available lead. There’s Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), a crack investigator and former military man; Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), a journalist now working as a college professor; and Mike Smith (Topher Grace), a freelance journalist fallen on hard times.
After a number of dead ends in attempting to fill in gaps from some of Bush’s former supervisors in the National Guard, Mapes and her team are contacted by Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett (Stacey Keach), a retired member of the National Guard in poor health. He hands them photocopied memos that purport to show Bush in dereliction of duty. Under a tight deadline, Mapes and company scramble to get the photocopied documents verified. Believing they’ve dotted every i and crossed every t, Rather and Mapes run the story – a bombshell as a close election draws nearer and nearer. Before long, however, their report is facing all sorts of scrutiny, and the professional and personal lives of everyone involved is placed under a microscope as sources begin to recant what they had previously told Mapes and company.
Vanderbilt, who previously wrote Zodiac for David Fincher, crafts another film that has journalists front and center with less enthralling material but still thoroughly engaging results. In many regards, Truth is a real life extension of Network, mourning the death of television news a loss leader and expected to turn a profit in sensationalism. Of course, Vanderbilt’s film is greatly sympathetic to Mapes, viewing her as a sacrificial lamb to the corporatist view of a quick news story for ratings and advertising dollars. While Vanderbilt isn’t an assured visual stylist, he sneaks a number of wonderful shots – one of a defeated Mapes pouring a hearty glass of wine with Bush speaking in the background is quite resounding. There’s a snap and a wit to his dialogue that keeps the procedural elements lively, rarely resorting to moments of Hollywood cheese.
Though Robert Redford playing Dan Rather might get the most attention, Truth is a film about Mary Mapes and anchored by another excellent performance by Cate Blanchett. The two-time Oscar winner delivers another excellent performance that encapsulates so many different aspects to her character. At one moment she’s a brash and confident journalist, the other on edge and uncertain of her future. If you weren’t already sure, Truth is just cementing Blanchett’s status as one of this era’s greatest actresses. Redford is solid as Rather, never showy or distracting. The biggest surprise of Truth is the performance by Topher Grace, who injects a deft balance of humor and defiance in his portray of Mike Smith. Grace, who was the best thing in a bad movie earlier this year, makes the most of a meaty performance, and it certainly never hurts an actor when playing opposite one of this generation’s greats.
Truth will likely draw the ire of hardline conservatives, though I would still recommend the film to everyone as it’s a well-made piece of cinema. While he doesn’t greatly focus on the authenticity of the memos, Vanderbilt doesn’t fully take Mapes of the hook for her lapses in getting the story to air. But Vanderbilt does place much of the onus on the executives of CBS, the combination of unseemly deadlines and inner corporate politics leaving a roster of scapegoats to the unemployment line. As I said before, Truth is very much in the vein of Network, a scathing indictment of corporate influence on news divisions. With another fantastic performance from Cate Blanchett and its examination of the anatomy of scandal, Truth is a smart, compelling piece of cinema that will leave a lot of people outraged for various reasons. Many won’t care for Truth, but these days not many people care for the truth.