Journalism isn’t what is used to be; it’s all about Tweets and celebrity gossip these days with presenters spending more time relaying what President Obama did over the weekend opposed to reading the actual news! First-time director James Vanderbilt — who’s best known for penning David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) — takes us back to the hard-hitting days of journalism with the brazenly titled Truth, a political docudrama that gives us an exhaustive look at the Killian documents or ‘Memogate’ controversy, a reporting blunder that embarrassed the CBS News network and ended the careers of both, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather (who, at 72 years of age, was probably set for retirement anyway) and 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes.
A couple months before the presidential election in 2004, 60 Minutes II ran a story on CBS — produced by Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and reported on-air by Dan Rather (Robert Redford) — that questioned whether George W. Bush (then seeking re-election) actually served in the National Guard between the years 1972 and 1973. The piece claimed that George W. Bush had exploited family connections along with political privilege in order to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War, deferring to the Texas Air National Guard where he didn’t even show up for Guard duty — an accusation that could’ve impacted the outcome of the Bush vs. Kerry election. Days after the story broke, the internet erupted with criticism surrounding the core documents on which these allegations were based, with bloggers denouncing the papers as fraudulent and CBS launching an internal investigation into the fiasco and the 60 Minutes team who reported the segment, the journalists humiliated for possibly being duped by failing to authenticate their sources. Thus, what could’ve been a sizzling inquiry into the military history of a ‘then’ serving president turned into a disastrous inquisition involving font types and superscripts.
Winding back for a sec, when the picture opens, director Vanderbilt makes it irrefutably clear that Mapes knows her stuff, viewers reminded that she was the one who broke the Peabody-winning Abu Ghraib story of the tortures that took place at the said military prison in Iraq. Viewers are also introduced to her top-notch team of investigators who are getting swept up in the anarchy of their latest assignment — Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), a square-shooting military consultant who allied with Mapes on the Abu Ghraib story; Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), a diligent Dallas researcher and journalism professor; and Mike Smith (Topher Grace), a junk-food eating Texas-based freelancer who’s previously worked with Mapes. So clearly we’re in capable hands here.
Alas, a couple of armature mistakes land Mapes and her team in hot water, the perfectionist in me thinking that she should’ve been more thorough. At the very least, someone should have made comparisons against Microsoft Word for font and letter spacing similarities seeing as the Bush team’s major argument against the report was their claim that the cited documents couldn’t have been produced on a late 1960s typewriter given the typography. Throughout the entire ordeal, filmmaker Vanderbilt makes it easy to sympathize with Mapes and her camp, outlining the crew’s initial scramble to get the story out on time, the squad rushing certain aspects of their investigation due to time constraints. While it’s still not 100% clear whether these documents were indeed fabricated — an expert would have to compare the photocopies against the real documents, which are no longer around — Truth sticks closely to Mapes and Rather’s account, the pair maintaining their stance on the credibility of their report.
Based on Mapes’ 2005 memoir Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power, Truth shies away from giving actual answers and instead focuses on the public’s changing attitude towards news, the internet’s power to discredit information and a major network’s readiness to drop top-level employees at the first sign of trouble. While the bulk of Truth is riveting stuff, Vanderbilt’s script could have done with some fine tuning seeing as it’s flooded with under-explained names, dates and double-sourcing, the screenplay stressing the insanity and confusion of the working newsroom; depending on one’s understanding of the scandal, keeping up with some of the intricacies here might be a tad wearisome.
Truth’s saving grace however, is its excellent cast who more than make up for the film’s bumpy flow and complicated nature. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine (2013), is terrific as Mary Mapes, a high-powered newswoman who’s at the top of her game, putting her supportive husband, Mark Wrolstad (John Benjamin Hickey) and spirited seven-year-old son Robert (Connor Burke) second to her high-profiled job — let’s not beat around the bush, Truth is essentially a one-woman show with Blanchett driving the entire narrative, nailing both the go-getter aspects of her character along with the quieter human moments within the script. Sharing little similarity to the legendary journo, veteran actor Robert Redford, All Is Lost (2013), inhabits Dan Rather convincingly, merging his own persona with that of the real personality he’s portraying. Furthermore, Redford and Blanchett share a palpable on-screen chemistry, bringing the actual father-daughter relationship that existed between the pair to life.
Elsewhere, a majority of the supporting players are undercooked and underwritten, in any case Bruce Greenwood, Star Trek (2009), stands out as CBS News president Andrew Heyward, who’s monitoring the situation with growing concern while Stacy Keach, Nebraska (2013), adds gravity to his role as the anxious informant Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett.
Shot almost entirely in Australia, Truth sports a first-rate production thanks to some even cinematography by Mandy Walker, Australia (2008), and an excellent early 2000’s production design by Fiona Crombie, Macbeth (2015). A behind-the-scenes procedural, a newsroom thriller and a multi-character study, Truth has a lot to say about the reporting of the news and how the on-line community changed the medium, their power destroying what should have been a legendary newsman’s finest hour. As for the title, I guess it’s more about the search for the truth opposed to finding an actual answer. Whatever stance you have on the Memogate issue, I guess these guys have already been crucified.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Truth is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia