Truth (2015)

truth_2015_poster
Truth (2015)
  • Time: 121 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama
  • Director: James Vanderbilt
  • Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Elisabeth Moss, Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Dermot Mulroney, Bruce Greenwood

Storyline:

The story of The Killian Documents controversy (a.k.a. “Rathergate”) in the days leading up to the 2004 presidential election. When veteran newscaster Dan Rather and CBS News head Mary Mapes choose to air a segment on 60 Minutes falsely accusing President Bush of avoiding being drafted to Vietnam through his father’s political advantages, the resulting fallout ultimately costs them their jobs and reputations.

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  • Dan Rather’s illustrious broadcast news career came to an inglorious end when he was forced to retire after the controversy surrounding his 60 Minutes report entitled “For the Record.” The report sought to question then-president George W. Bush’s military record, but the authenticity of a handful of documents, which confirmed that the president had been given preferential treatment (thus avoiding the Vietnam War), was hotly contested. Rather was the most prominent victim of the resulting fallout, but there were others who paid the price, most notably producer Mary Mapes, who has not worked in television since being terminated from her post.

    Based on Mapes’ 2005 memoir Truth and Duty, Truth places Mapes front and center as a tough-as-nails woman powered, though eventually undone, by the courage of her convictions. Cate Blanchett commands from her very first second – her Mapes is fiercely intelligent but also antagonistic and challenging, essential qualities for someone seeking the truth and always willing to ask the tough questions. Yet those very qualities turn against her when the unspoken alliance between corporate media and national politics comes to the fore.

    Mapes was coming off breaking the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse story when she set her sights on her next investigative piece: Bush’s dubious military service. Mapes was not the only person interested in the topic – Bush, then in the midst of running for re-election, had swiftboated his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, whose decorated war record was in stark contrast to his own – and media outlets had been discussing it since Bush’s first presidential campaign. With the go-ahead from 60 Minutes Wednesday Executive Producer Josh Howard (David Lyons) and Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy (Natalie Saleeba), Mapes assembled her core investigative team: ex-military and Pentagon man Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), freelancer Mike Smith (Topher Grace), and journalism professor Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss).

    As with his screenplay for David Fincher’s Zodiac, director James Vanderbilt painstakingly details the procedural process as the team pore over the paperwork and, mindful that the results of their investigation could influence the election, are careful to validate every iota of information and evidence. This is for 60 Minutes, after all, the gold standard for journalistic integrity in an industry less and less inclined to fund serious news investigations and being taken over by the burgeoning online reporters, the majority of whom don’t exactly adhere to the strictest of standards.

    Determined to break the story before the competition gets a whiff of it, Mapes agrees to the earliest available time slot, which means that she and her team have five days to ensure their findings are airtight. Had the presidential election not been around the corner, perhaps Mapes would have considered a later air date. Perhaps a later air date would have allowed for better scrutiny of the documents which confirmed, in no uncertain terms, that Bush’s military attendance was practically non-existent and that he hardly fulfilled any of his obligations as an officer. Perhaps there would have been time to explore the superscript “th,” a feature experts would point out could not have been produced on a ’70s-era mechanical typewriter. Perhaps Mapes would have taken more steps to get confirmation of the documents’ content on-camera rather than obtaining it over the phone.

    Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. It doesn’t matter that the crux of the story was essentially solid. What matters to the other major news outlets is that CBS is now a target, and what matters to the CBS News higher-ups is finding someone to blame. That someone was Mapes. She had, after all, come up with the story and put it together. She was the one that deemed her sources and all the evidence acceptable. Never mind that Mapes and her team had proven the superscript “th” was possible on typewriters of that period and earlier. The damage had been done and no amount of facts could repair the public’s perception. CBS was not about to protect one or any of its own if the current and future administration threatened the corporate interests of the network or its parent company, Viacom. And so Mapes, Rather, and all those involved were raked over the coals.

    Truth is not without its moments of pontificating, both subtle (Rather lamenting the rise of the blogospheres) and melodramatic (Mike Smith’s conspiracy theory outburst), but Vanderbilt generally maintains an even-keeled intensity. The film is firmly on Mapes’ side, though with Blanchett’s gripping portrayal, it’s difficult not to be on anyone’s side but hers. Her unraveling is spectacular to witness – one could swear that physical manifestations of her emotional wounds were visible. Robert Redford as Rather is magnetic, though the film’s lionisation of Rather in its final moments feels off-key considering how he has mostly been a peripheral figure.

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  • Journalism is a tough business. And I would be willing to bet that anyone who disagrees with that statement has never done the job. All most of us see is the finished product, but we don’t see the hard work, long hours and, sometimes, danger that goes into bringing us the news. People often talk about the bias in some journalists or the mistakes a few of them make, but what we usually don’t think or hear about is the large percentage of journalists who do their best to be objective and verify the facts that they report. However, like all of us, journalists are imperfect human beings and, as hard as they may try to avoid it, they are still susceptible to the power of their emotions, the influence of their prejudices and the human propensity to make mistakes. They will also fight as energetically as any of us when they believe they are right and are being unfairly attacked. We see all this in the docudrama “Truth” (R, 2:01).

    By early 2004, Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchet) had been senior producer of the television news magazine “60 Minutes Wednesday” (also known as “60 Minutes II” and, simply “60 Minutes”) for 15 years, as she worked closely with legendary CBS News reporter and anchorman Dan Rather (Robert Redford). In the spring of 2004, Mapes and Rather had worked together to break the story of U.S. military and intelligence personnel mistreating detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison (later winning a Peabody Award for their reporting). In late summer, Mapes became aware of the existence of documents which might lend credence to a long-standing rumor that then-President George W. Bush (son of then-Congressman George H.W. Bush) received preferential treatment from the Texas Air National Guard and even failed to fulfill all of his service commitments. In pursuit of the story, Mapes worked with Rather and assembled a team of journalists which included associate producer Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), freelance journalist Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and military expert, retired Marine Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid).

    As Mapes and her team developed their story, former Texas Air Guard officer Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) supplied photo copies of the documents and CBS attempted to authenticate them. Handwriting analysts and document experts vouched for their authenticity and former Texas Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes (Philip Quast) agreed to go on camera with his claim that he had gotten Bush in the Air Guard as a political favor. The deadline for the segment to air was tight, but Mapes and her team were satisfied with the content of their story. They ran it on September 8, 2004 and the criticism of the story and the journalists involved was immediate and vicious. Accusations arose online that the documents were forged and Mapes’ superiors at CBS, including Executive Producer Josh Howard, Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy, as well as Senior Vice President Betsy West and President of CBS News Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood) started asking a lot more questions. CBS News doubled-down on their story, releasing more facts, more explanations and more interview clips to back up their claims, with the reputation of the organization and their individual careers hanging in the balance. Eventually, CBS hired a team of lawyers led by Lawrence Lanpher (Dermot Mulroney) to conduct an internal investigation.

    “Truth” is based on Mapes’ 2005 memoir “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power”. As such, it is the story of what happened from her point of view and, as a journalist she makes it interesting. I like “Truth” in the same way I like Oliver Stone’s 1991 Kennedy Assassination movie “JFK”, as one version of a fascinating story, seen through the eyes of people who had their own interpretation of the incidents portrayed. Each film shows us a version of events which may or may not be 100% accurate and has drawn considerable criticism from those who hold to different interpretations of those events. Both films tell compelling stories, are well-scripted and very well acted by some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but make little effort toward presenting a balanced representation of their stories or giving a strong voice to other points of view. When it comes right down to it, calling such a film “Truth” is pretty arrogant. However, in the search for verifiable historical truth, the film, whether the complete truth or not, is an entertaining step on a long and winding journey with many forks in the road. “B-“

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