Many reporters of my generation jumped into this business after watching “All the President’s Men,” in which guys played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman cracked open a scandal that went all the way to the Oval Office. (I was finishing a master’s degree in journalism when it came out, but even I felt validated.)
Forty years after Watergate, here comes another movie in which a guy played by Robert Redford – this time, CBS news anchor Dan Rather – investigates another scandal affecting the Oval Office. I should have been cheering, but I found myself admiring the film’s professionalism and uttering a faint “Rah.” It’s odd to see so biased a movie about broadcasters who are under fire for running a biased story.
Odd, though perhaps predictable in the case of “Truth.” It’s based on Mary Mapes’ book “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power,” and that title tells you what to expect from the film.
Mapes produced news for CBS, joining “60 Minutes Wednesday” in 1999 and winning a Peabody Award for exposing the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. She also produced a piece that revealed former S.C. Sen. Strom Thurmond had a biracial daughter he never acknowledged.
Yet she’s best known today for an episode that led to her firing and the resignation of Rather and multiple colleagues: a 2004 story claiming President George Bush had been given special treatment during the Vietnam War because his dad was in Congress. He’d allegedly been taken into the Texas National Guard to avoid being sent to Vietnam, failed to complete his assignments and been released early so he could go to business school.
That case was built, as this movie is, around documents that proved Bush’s malfeasance if they were accurate but may have been faked by people out to end his political career. The film doesn’t settle that question. (Nothing ever has.) It asks, instead, whether the main issue was shunted aside. Even if these documents were unreliable, did Bush get special treatment?
Writer-producer James Vanderbilt’s career highlight has been the gripping “Zodiac,” another drama about a journalist who’s certain of a villain’s culpability – in that case, California’s Zodiac killer – but can’t prove guilt. Vanderbilt makes his directing debut with “Truth,” and his heart rests entirely with Mapes.
She’s played with consummate smarts and vulnerability by Cate Blanchett. Everyone but her gentle husband (John Benjamin Hickey), the enigmatically distant Rather (who looks embalmed) and her research team go against Mapes.
She’s lied to by sources she trusts, blown off by others, forced to air the story before it’s ready because CBS has given more desirable slots to Dr. Phil and a Billy Graham Crusade. Network executives placate parent company Viacom, which is depicted as being in bed with the Bush administration, by making her a scapegoat. An investigative committee looking for malfeasance wants to crucify her. She’s punished for seeking the truth, as she once was by the alcoholic father who beat her for asking too many questions.
Vanderbilt gets fine performances from Bruce Greenwood as the CBS news boss, Topher Grace as a conspiracy-seeking researcher with a chip on his shoulder, Dennis Quaid as a seen-it-all military officer who thinks Bush is guilty and Stacy Keach as a veteran with motives Mapes can’t puzzle out.
Yet Mapes seldom leaves the screen and never forfeits our sympathy. She may have to concede that her team didn’t (and perhaps couldn’t) verify the documents, that she failed to air opposing views, that she left herself open to attack. But the overarching argument that such journalists will lose heart if they have to defend their work against powerful opposition – that perhaps news reporting as we know it could cease – falls flat. In this telling, the final “truth” rings hollow.
☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Stacy Keach.
Writer-Director: James Vanderbilt.
Length: 125 minutes.
Rating: R (language and a brief nude photo).