Sunday, October 25, 2015
Written for the Screen and Directed by James Vanderbilt
Truth is based on the memoir of Mary Mapes, the CBS news reporter and 60 Minutes producer fired after the Dan Rather scandal. Whatever objectivity James Vanderbilt reflects upon Mapes and her journalistic integrity, Vanderbilt does not hold himself to the same standard of objectivity - the film is completely and unapologetically sympathetic with the disgraced newswoman. Even to the extent that the film admits Mapes made mistakes when she ran with a story disputing then President George W. Bush's military record, it does so while stating that any and all groundbreaking reporting is done with a degree of faith - you can never be 100% sure, you just have to trust your sources. Furthermore, Vanderbilt's film makes Mapes a psychological construct, a character pieced together by a stiff upper lip and daddy issues. She's not great at her job because of her skill, but because she had to fight, and because Dan Rather was there to be the father she deserved. Luckily, Truth cast Cate Blanchett in the role of Mapes, and I'll be damned if she doesn't perform the hell out of this role. The Australian actress is approaching peerlessness, performing at such a high level here, with such pinpoint certainty, such perfect delivery, it's hard to imagine anyone else being able to take this material and churning out this level of work. Truth has a very moral, humanistic view on the network news, and it sees the Dan Rather scandal as the moment everything turned against them, but it's best moments come when we're allowed to see Blanchett smolder along, fraying with growing frequency as the noose tightens around Mapes' neck.
The incident, playfully described as 'Rathergate' at the time, is well known. Television news producer Mapes is hot off her Peabody-winning work in exposing the American cruelty in Abu Ghraib, and looks ahead to her new project: a story that surmises that President Bush finagled his way into the National Guard to avoid time in Vietnam, and then failed to even report for military duty. This was a story which Mary meant to file before the 2000 election, before personal issues led to the story being dropped directly ahead of Bush winning the closest American presidential election of all time. Heading into the 2004 election, Mapes hopes to get eyes on this story before Bush is able to win again. Mapes has the support of Dan Rather (a perfectly stately Robert Redford), the most respected newsman at the time, and a man in which Mary shares a very close, paternal relationship with. All Rather requests is that the story be nailed down. So Mary assembles a crack team, including retired Marine Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), journalism professor Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), as well as feisty freelance researcher Mike Smith (Topher Grace). Mary and Mike are able to meet and speak with Bill Burkett (Stacey Keach), a disgruntled former military man who has copies of personal memos from a National Guard officer discussing that Bush didn't complete even minimal training following his transfer. Burkett gives them the documents, but he will not go on the record, it's up to Mapes and her team to verify them.
As the team calls every possible source to verify Burkett's memos, Mapes is also scrambling to find a slot for the story to run. Desperate to get it on television before the election, they have no choice but to try and shoehorn the story into a 60 Minutes broadcast that is five days away. Caught in a time crunch, Mapes and her team do everything they can to get at least one official from the Guard to verify Burkett's memos - without it, Rather will not run with the story. Once they get a tentative verification, as well as a handwriting expert to confirm the signatures, they decide to run the story, and for one night, 60 Minutes is breaking shocking news on the past malfeasance of a sitting president. The celebration lasts for less than twenty-four hours, when the very next day, CBS and Mapes are blasted for using fake documents to prop up their story. Right wing blogs claim that they could have easily been manufactured on Microsoft Word, that the framing and typeface are things that did not exist in the 1970's. Rather sees it as another meaningless attack and Mapes tentatively agrees, until it starts to become clear that Burkett may not have given them the complete story. In the blink of an eye, all that 60 Minutes and Dan Rather have come to stand for begins to crumble. Mapes is dragged across the coals, vilified in the media, even by her own estranged father. Truth does it's best to make it's second half seem like a complete witch hunt and it succeeds. Mapes is played as a complete and total victim - a genius being overpowered by a corrupt presidency. If only it were that simple.
Interestingly enough, the film Truth reminded me the most of was 1994's Quiz Show, which happened to be directed by Redford himself. Both films tackle major dichotomies of the television industry (television's capitalistic control over network quiz shows vs. political power corrupting the network news), and both films could have done better by dropping their appeals to a broad audience. Both movies could have definitely been smarter, and both films are essentially saved by their casts and the performances they bring. Truth doesn't have Quiz Show's strong script, and Vanderbilt is not as confident a director as Redford was then, not yet anyway. Truth is too heavy-handed, too willing to let Mapes and Rather off the hook. Rathergate was right at the inception of a time when public careers could be ended by the smallest infraction, and there was probably no way that, in 2004, CBS could have foreseen the firestorm that was coming, how meticulous and never-ending the internet can be in taking down a foe. That Truth believes Mapes was not politically motivated by her sloppy work isn't exactly surprising, but the movie doesn't allow itself any insurance; it's feelings toward Mapes' enemies are a bit too black and white. Quiz Show was tackling a significantly lighter topic, but it had the horses to frame the context of Charles Van Doren's lies against the higher evil of NBC's studio heads and the nefarious sponsors. Instead, Truth paints the scenario as blindly right and wrong, where nuance could have been more enhancing.
More than anything, Truth is a deification of Dan Rather. Rather was forced to resign after the scandal, but it seems his reputation has been largely patched up since then. Redford is the perfect casting choice here. The seventy-nine year-old actor was never a theatrical performer, and his understatement works well here. All of the glow and credence are reflected upon him by others, and who better than Robert Redford to reflect that glow? That Rather as a character is essentially pared down into daddy stand-in for Mapes is a shame. We could see that Mapes and Rather had a strong relationship that went beyond the newsroom, it was obvious in the way that Blanchett and Redford play their scenes together. That Venderbilt's script still feels the need to have several supporting characters explain Mapes' history with physical abuse from her father shows the movie's own insecurity with its story. This is such basic 'show don't tell' stuff, that it seems almost baffling that the movie keeps falling into it. Luckily, we do have those scenes between Blanchett and Redford, which showcase an incredible chemistry. Blanchett also has Carol coming out later this month, a film that has been lighting up the festival circuit, sparking awards buzz for its leading lady. That film is directed by Todd Haynes, and will probably be better than Truth, but I can't see how Blanchett can get any better than she is here. With Blue Jasmine, she proved she belonged alongside the very best film actors working in Hollywood, with Truth, she seems to be claiming a particularly long stay within that crowd.
Truth's supporting cast is trying pretty hard here. Grace is going for broke as the political mouthpiece Mike Smith, but it's a bit awkward how often Vanderbilt uses precarious situations to allow this character to spout off his theories. A rant about Viacom as he's being thrown out of CBS feels particularly ham-fisted. Moss is simply underused (she maybe has ten lines throughout the whole film and is used mainly as background filler), and Quaid spends a remarkable amount of his screentime with an unsettling grin across his face, for which emotion I'm still not totally sure he was meaning to express. Now, this is Vanderbilt's directorial debut (he's worked mostly as a screenwriter, with his most impressive credit being the script to 2007's Zodiac), so that considered, this is a decent start. At the very least, he understands the kinds of stories that he wants to tell. But this kind of storytelling can quickly lead to Oliver Stone-land, possessing an inherent hypocrisy where political bias is disdained in everything except your own films. Despite everything, though, Truth must be appreciated for what it allows Blanchett to do. It's hard not to be reminded of her performance in Veronica Guerin, where she also plays a journalist under fire from the people she's covering. That was another mess of a movie that became watchable because of the raw tenacity that Blanchett brings to the screen. With Guerin in 2003, she was not the refined talent that she is now, and if there's nothing else to watch Truth for, you can at least see one of the very best actors on the planet.