D: James Vanderbilt / 125m
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, Noni Hazlehurst, John Benjamin Hickey, David Lyons, Rachael Blake, Dermot Mulroney, Andrew McFarlane, Connor Burke
In 2004, Mary Mapes (Blanchett) was a producer at CBS’ flagship news programme, 60 Minutes. She worked with the legendary news anchor Dan Rather (Redford), and earlier that year she and her team had produced a news report on the abuse happening at Abu Ghraib (which later won a Peabody Award). Mapes was a highly regarded producer who had been at CBS for fifteen years; when she told her bosses that she wanted to investigate irregularities connected with then President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard during the early Seventies, she was given the go ahead to look into the matter and prepare a segment for broadcast.
Soon after, Mapes came into possession of documents – memos – that claimed to show Bush had failed to follow orders while in the ANG, and that efforts were made by his superiors to influence and improve his record. These documents were purportedly written by Bush’s commander, the late Jerry B. Killian. Mapes and her team set about trying to find witnesses who could corroborate the content of these memos, but were consistently rebuffed. At the same time they sought to have the documents examined for authenticity. But there were problems: the documents weren’t the originals, and their source wasn’t confirmed before the segment was aired on 8 September 2004. Mapes, even though the documents were copies of the originals, was convinced of their probity at least, and so was Rather. The segment was broadcast, and during it, Rather stated that “the material” had been authenticated.
But this wasn’t true, and soon criticism of the show’s claims were spreading far and wide, and focused primarily on the typography used in the memos and other anachronisms that seemed damning. CBS found themselves backtracking, and Mapes was disturbed to learn that the person who’d given her the documents, retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Keach), had lied about where he got them from. With their provenance appearing unsavoury at the least, Mapes came under pressure from the head of CBS, Andrew Heyward (Greenwood), to limit the damage of these revelations, and to find conclusive proof that the memos were even written by Killian. Unable to, and with other accusations of poor journalism coming in thick and fast, Mapes and her team were suspended pending an internal investigation. With his own integrity tarnished by the criticisms, Rather made a public apology regarding the segment, and later, announced his retirement.
Adapted from Mapes’ book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, writer/director James Vanderbilt’s debut feature is an awkward beast, telling its story with a great deal of enthusiasm for showing just how tarnished Bush’s ANG record was, but then failing to properly acknowledge just how badly Mapes and her team scored a classic own goal. You don’t have to be an expert in TV news journalism to realise that the whole issue of the memos – their authenticity, their provenance, what they appeared to say – was handled with an irresponsible disregard for true journalistic integrity. Anyone watching Truth, and that really does mean anyone, will be watching events unfold and wincing at just how readily Mapes and her team were willing to put their heads in a collective noose. They failed to do the one thing that any journalist or writer needs to do to make an accusation: have conclusive, incontrovertible proof that what they’re saying is true. And Mapes didn’t have that.
But again, the movie tries its best to avoid acknowledging what should be obvious to anyone watching. It still supports Mapes in her efforts to “get out from under” the storm of approbation and scathing criticism that rains down on her once the segment airs. And it tries to make her into a scapegoat for a much larger conspiracy, one that’s expressed with anguished contempt by her colleague, Mike Smith (Grace), but the whole idea lacks weight, despite the movie clinging to it unashamedly for the last thirty minutes. This may be how Mapes and her team felt at the time, but a judicious helmer would have excised it for being too incongruous and absurd a proposition (it’s also one of those embarrassing tantrums that people have when they haven’t got anyone else to blame but themselves).
All this leads to an inescapable, but strangely welcome conclusion: the movie you’re watching is about failure, a rare topic in American movies, but one that Vanderbilt at least tries to embrace, even if he doesn’t quite know what to do with it, hence the ambivalence towards Mapes and the schoolboy errors she makes. Rather makes his apology but is seen doing so on a variety of TV screens and monitors, rather than up close, thereby limiting the effect of his regret and the connection we can make to it; it’s almost inconsequential to what’s happening to Mapes at the time, as if the movie has to acknowledge it occurred but doesn’t want to lend it too much importance. It’s like when someone says to you, “Oh, by the way…” But Mapes is resolute in her convictions right up until the credits. In any other movie the audience would be applauding her for standing up for her beliefs, but instead you can’t help but wonder if she ever learnt anything of personal value from it all.
In the end we’re asked to have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Mapes and the way she’s treated, but it becomes increasingly difficult. Even Blanchett can’t make her entirely sympathetic, and while she gives a good performance, she’s hampered by the fact that she’s trying to elevate the position of someone who was the author of her own downfall. As Rather, Redford is a bit of a distraction, not because of how we see him after all these years, but because we have no idea if he’s portraying Rather with any degree of accuracy; there’s just not enough there for us to be sure. Further down the cast list, Grace essays yet another earnest young man role, while Quaid adds gravitas as the ex-military man on Mapes’ team. Moss rounds out Mapes’ (in)famous five, Greenwood is her angry, unsupportive boss, and Keach is the whistle blower who isn’t telling the whole truth. All give adequate performances but bow to Blanchett’s greater involvement and do their best not to get in the way when she’s in full flow (which is often).
With half an eye trained on being a prestige, awards-gathering picture, Truth aims for solid and dependable, and for the most part achieves those aims, but lacks the passion that would have made all the difference to the material. Vanderbilt has the talent to make better, more focused movies, and he’s to be congratulated for attracting what is a top-notch cast for his first project, but too often they’re operating at the edge of the frame to be effective, and are given few chances to shine (except for Blanchett, that is). And Vanderbilt needs to interpret his material more, to let it breathe and grow beyond the obvious, as several scenes in Truth have the feel of filler instead of moments that advance the storyline. But these are forgivable errors for a first-time director to make, and though the movie isn’t entirely successful on its own merit, there’s just enough here to make the experience pleasant enough to hang around til the end.
Rating: 6/10 – flawed, and with a central character who loses the audience’s sympathy with each passing minute, Truth should be an engrossing exposé of journalistic persecution, but instead proves to be far stranger, less convincing affair; Blanchett does her best to hold it all together, but she’s defeated by the material and Mapes’ recurring ability to undermine herself without anyone else’s help.
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