Directed by: James Vanderbilt
Premise: Based on a true story. In the midst of the 2004 presidential election, 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes and anchor Dan Rather put together a story on President George W. Bush’s military record. The piece causes a political firestorm and the claims of the story erode.
What Works: Truth is primarily the story of Mary Mapes, played by Cate Blanchett. As usual, Blanchett is terrific. She carries herself with dignity and intelligence but Mapes is a full-fledged character with history and vulnerability and as pressure mounts over the flaws in the report Blanchett is appropriately frightened even while she defends her work. Truth is a classic individual-versus-the-institution story and the movie includes a lot of images that visualize this. In particular, Mapes’ testimony during CBS’s internal inquiry is shot and edited in a way that sets up the power dynamic in the room and picks up on subtle details in the performances. Several scenes in the movie also draw attention to the sexism that Mapes encounters. Admirably, the filmmakers tend to present sexism less in an overt and gross way that movies usually do and opt for the more subtle forms of sexism that take place in everyday life.
What Doesn’t: While the casting of Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes is a coup for the movie, the casting of Robert Redford as Dan Rather doesn’t work out nearly as well. Mapes worked off camera and was therefore unfamiliar to the public but Rather was a fixture of network news for decades and he had a distinct voice and a particular look. Redford is unable to replicate the public figure, he doesn’t capture Rather’s persona, and his accent is all over the place. The other problem with Truth’s portrayal of Dan Rather is that it is far too generous. As this movie portrays it, Rather was practically an innocent bystander who did little other than read the teleprompter and ask the questions that were fed to him by Mapes. Where Mapes comes across as a human being with desires and flaws, Rather is portrayed as something nearing a saint. The film’s regard for Rather gets quite strange at the end of the movie when he steps down from his position as anchor of the CBS Evening News. The scene plays as an “O Captain! My Captain!” moment and it’s completely inappropriate. For one, the movie isn’t leading toward that conclusion. The story sets up Rather’s final sign off as a moment of defeat in which journalistic ideals runs headfirst into corporate interests. But for another, that’s not the whole truth of the matter. Unmentioned in the movie is the fact that while Rather was anchor of the CBS Evening News the show was the lowest rated network newscast. And finally there is the whole issue of the integrity of the Bush war records story, which constitutes the heart of the movie. Truth is based on Mary Mapes’ memoir. This is supposed to be her side of the story and the film has been made in such a way that we are intended to sympathize with her. However, the filmmakers of Truth don’t do Mapes many favors. She comes across as someone who assumed a conclusion and flagrantly exhibited confirmation bias while ignoring evidence to the contrary. In the end, this whole debacle comes down to a news crew that botched a major story because they didn’t use due diligence and engaged in ethically questionable behavior. That could be a very interesting and complex dramatic story of otherwise successful and professional people getting something very wrong. But Truth never owns the responsibility of its key characters. Instead the filmmakers pound their chests with self-righteous indignation and hide the responsibility of Mapes, Rather, and their associates behind an evil-corporate-media excuse.
Bottom Line: There is a case to be made for the disintegrating status of investigative journalism but Truth is not it. Very much like the people whose story it tells, the filmmakers attempt to contort a historical event into something it wasn’t.
Episode: #558 (November 8, 2015)