Truth is one of those movies that’s going to get people talking for all the wrong reasons, mainly because it’s going to re-open a lot of old wounds. Because the story it focuses on — the journalistic scandal that rocked CBS News in 2004, whose aftermath led in part to venerable CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather stepping down early the following year — is so close in recent memory, and because what’s “true” in regards to that story and the story behind it is still very hotly contended by the parties involved and the nation as a whole, the quality of the film and the performances within it might get lost in the din of voices raised once again, pointing fingers and making accusations about personal agendas, political biases, and conspiracies. Be that as it may, strictly speaking on its merits as a film, it’s a well-executed and intense (though conventional) behind-the-scenes newsroom drama brought to life by an A-list cast at the top of their games. The work turned in here by Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford in particular is tremendous and worthy of attention; if anything, its because what they turn in here is so good that people are going to be arguing and debating over the underlying issues that the film examines all over again. Suffice to say that regardless of what side of the political spectrum you ally yourself with, if you care at all about the news, about who’s reporting it, what they choose to report and why, then Truth will get into your head and under your skin.
Blanchett plays 20-year veteran CBS News producer Mary Mapes, who in April 2004, along with Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and a crack team of investigators, brought to light on prime time television the abuses by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib military prison in Iraq. On the heels of that particular journalistic triumph, Mapes asks for and receives permission from the execs in charge of “60 Minutes II” to run down leads on a story involving then-President George W. Bush’s Vietnam War-era military service in the Texas Air National Guard, whose pilots and officers were not compelled to fly missions in Vietnam. To run down those leads, she puts together an investigative team comprised of Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), a military consultant who helped her investigate and assemble the Abu Ghraib story; Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), a journalism professor and freelance researcher; and Mike Smith (Topher Grace), a freelance reporter who had already been compiling information about Bush and his service in the Texas Air National Guard for several years. Their research into Bush’s service record, specifically how he got into the Texas Air National Guard and certain gaps in his attendance while performing equivalent duty in the Alabama Air National Guard, points to not only preferential treatment but also potentially dereliction of duty, occurrences that could be devastating to the President’s image in an election year should they become public knowledge.
After months of tracking down leads, corroborating reports, and attempting to authenticate to the best of their ability with time running out documents provided to the team by a retired Texas Air National Guard Lt. Colonel, Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) that provide the most compelling evidence to their story, Rather takes the story on-air on September 8th, 2004. Mapes, Rather, and her team are all proud of the story they’ve put together and confident of its findings and the air-tightness of their evidence and sources. But within hours of the broadcast, they find their work being questioned first by conservative bloggers and later by the mainstream media. The documents provided by Burkett are called forgeries, the sources that corroborated the veracity of those documents’ contents change their stories, and suddenly Mapes finds her own producers as well as CBS News president Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood) questioning not only the story, but her own journalistic judgement in putting it forward, as it seems she’s put the very credibility of CBS News at risk.
A tenacious fighter by nature, Mapes, with Rather’s full support, rallies her team to do all they can to push back and set the record straight. But the harder they fight to shore up their story, the more things seem to unravel and their support among their colleagues seems to erode, until it becomes clear that in the wake of what they put their names and Rather’s to, no one’s credibility or career is safe, not even Rather’s, who at that time was one of America’s most trusted news reporters.
Director James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) based his screenplay for Truth on Mary Mapes’s 2005 book “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.” Thus, in effect the film is built upon Mapes’ side of the story. She and Rather, to this day, still stand by the truth of what they uncovered, and maintain that they, along with Roger Charles, Lucy Scott, and Mike Smith, did their due diligence to the best of their ability and presented their case with no agenda aside from uncovering the truth, while at the same acknowledging that mistakes were made in terms of how and when the story they put together came to be broadcast. Vanderbilt’s narrative approach to Mapes’ story, both as screenwriter and director, is solid, if not spectacular; what you get on-screen in terms of sequence and pacing isn’t a whole lot different that what you might in an episode of HBO’s “The Newsroom“, and certainly reminiscent of past journalism dramas such as All the President’s Men. There’s plenty of tension, moments of triumph immediately followed by more plot complications and “uh-oh … things just got worse” moments, and on the whole the film never once drags or feels rote.
But really it’s the talent in the cast of Truth that keeps the film as engrossing as it is. Blanchett is compelling and charismatic in her every scene as Mary Mapes: fiery, driven, passionate about her craft and the stories she takes on, admittedly an avowed antagonist to bullies in the political establishment and elsewhere. But her work isn’t all there is to Mapes — the film is careful to show how that work and the scrutiny she comes under affect her life as a wife and mother, and its during those scenes that Blanchett projects palpable anxiety and vulnerability. She and Redford play off of each other very well in their shared scenes as they depict the long friendship and working relationship shared by Mapes and Dan Rather, as they both share an idealism about their role in reporting the news that inspires their colleagues and paints a target on their backs for their adversaries. Speaking of Redford, his efforts to channel Rather is subtle yet noticeable; while he looks nothing like Rather even with a little extra grey added to his hair, he adopts just enough of the veteran newsman’s on-camera mannerisms and vocal cadence to be convincing. Especially if you watched the real Rather deliver the CBS Evening News during any of his 24 years in that anchor chair, you might be surprised by the end of Truth just how successful Redford is delivering the gravitas and conviction of one of America’s most well-known and respected journalists.
All that said, where audiences fall in terms of their politics and their relative trust of the media in this day and age is sure to affect just how much they enjoy or even buy into Truth. There’s definitely a message here that Vanderbilt, Blanchett, Redford, and the rest of this talented production are trying to convey, about the direction in which broadcast journalism has turned in response to factors such as a polarized and adversarial political climate, corporate politics, and the ever-growing influence of the blogosphere and the Internet and their effect on mainstream media trust and credibility. In all honesty, there’s truth to what they’re saying, but as many critics have pointed out in the years since the scandal and its aftermath, Mapes’ book and the effort to get her story out there can easily be seen as self-serving and manipulative, a charge that can potentially be just as easily laid upon this film considering it uses “Truth and Duty” as its primary source. So in terms of any message that this film — and Mapes and Rather, by proxy — might be trying to send, there’s still a question of credibility, at least in some people’s minds.
But, to be clear: Truth IS a film worth taking the time to see, if for no other reason than for the strength of the dramatic performances turned in by its leads. Praise it, recommend it, dismiss it, or decry it once you see it if it doesn’t fit your particular view of “the truth”, for truth, regardless of what anyone anywhere says, is always subjective.
At the very least, just see it. As a finely-acted piece of celluloid, it deserves that much.
Starring Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, and Dennis Quaid. Directed by James Vanderbilt.
Running Time: 121 minutes
Rated R for language and a brief nude photo.