‘Truth’ movie: Gripping and well-acted drama can’t hide ’60 Minutes’ producer Mary Mapes’ role in the ‘devolution of TV journalism’
The devolution of TV journalism into partisan point-scoring and sophistic bloviating was in full stride by the time 60 Minutes ran its 2004 story claiming that then-President George W. Bush avoided serving in Vietnam by finagling a cush gig in the Texas Air National Guard in 1968. The segment’s discrediting merely provided increased momentum, even though its primary assertion that Bush never fulfilled his military service contract has yet to be wholly debunked.
The story (and the careers of its authors) crumbled when the conservative blogosphere was able to cast considerable doubt on the authenticity of a handful of memos from which 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes and her team came to their “September Surprise” conclusion – one that might have permanently tipped the scales of a tight 2004 election towards Democrat John Kerry.
Whether Mapes jumped the gun in her rush to put together the story in only five days and/or her politics blinded her objectivity are just two questions raised and subjectively answered in screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s directing debut: the riveting, slightly troubling Truth.
Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett: Memorable performances
Vanderbilt, who wrote David Fincher’s mesmerizing procedural Zodiac, brings that same severe detail and ability to absorb the audience in the mundane intricacies of sourcing and reporting. He also brings with him two powerhouse performers who humanize and simplify Vanderbilt’s profligate amounts of rigorous, sometimes “in the weeds” dialogue.
Robert Redford, whose late-career reawakening is a pleasure to witness, brings his iconic stature to the role of venerable CBS anchor Dan Rather, the most high-profile victim of what came to be known as Memogate.
Then there’s Cate Blanchett, as Rather’s longtime producer Mary Mapes, giving a performance of such intensity, range, focus, humanity, and intelligence that we may start to wonder if she’s some sort of alien or possibly a robot (the Strasberg 5000?) programmed to be perfect in every role.
‘Juicy piece of brisket’
We first meet Mapes and Rather in the prime of their 60 Minutes careers, enjoying huzzahs for their report on the unconscionable abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Later, a tip referred to in an email as a “juicy piece of brisket” eventually leads Mapes to the National Guard story. Putting together a team consisting of a Vietnam vet (Dennis Quaid), a professor (Elisabeth Moss), and a young, hotheaded researcher (Topher Grace), Mapes gets down to business.
Vanderbilt has undoubtedly seen the same hero-journalist movies we have and his dialogue in these early passages of deep information gathering pay homage to key journalistic processes. But watching Mapes and her team sweat it out in their paper- and coffee cup-strewn conference room, discussing which leads to pursue and which are dead-ends, isn’t just Vanderbilt building a wall of facts from which his characters will ascend and, soon enough, tumble. It’s establishing that Mapes, whose book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power forms the basis of the screenplay, isn’t a partisan hack but a noble, dogged, truth-seeking journalist.
And it’s that thin layer of self-justification and record-correcting that makes us wonder whose version of the truth is really on display.
Unreliable sources and the downfall of CBS News stars
James Vanderbilt’s direction is clean and unfussy, sometimes consisting of long single takes that give the performers room to convey the triumphant high and emotional relief of confirming a crucial fact or convincing a source to come forward. One such source is Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), who, despite the better judgment of his wife (Noni Hazlehurst, registering strongly in a small role), reluctantly provides Mapes with smoking gun memos claiming that Bush’s National Guard commanders gave him preferential treatment and covered up his less than stellar record.
Much of the drama revolves around the authentication of these ancient memos – and Vanderbilt leaves open the possibility that Mapes was too willing to believe the memos were real and too high on herself to let anyone convince her otherwise.
Despite some concerns, CBS News brass remains confident in the dynamic duo of Mapes and Rather. They approve the segment, which airs on a Wednesday night, after which the team toasts a job presumably well done. Most films of this type would fade to black here, the Gibraltar-like ideals of journalistic truth-telling and integrity having been confirmed. But this film is just getting started.
Superscript function drama
The bombshell allegations become red meat for the red state crowd, who begin by asserting that the font used in the Vietnam-era memos only became available with the advent of Microsoft Word. And not many directors can make high drama out of whether typewriters in 1968 had a superscript function, but Vanderbilt does.
As the story falls apart in the most public and disastrous fashion (even the other legacy networks start piling on), Truth takes on a tragic, more emotion-packed dimension, which is where Cate Blanchett, already a two-time Oscar winner, really puts it into high gear. She plays Mapes as an indefatigable, whip-smart woman juggling a husband, a young son, and a sterling career that’s taken her to the top of Network News Mountain.
But as sources recant and top CBS News honchos begin wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into, Mapes’ tough exterior begins to collapse in on itself, like a boxer taking too many blows to the stomach. There’s probably no more devastating moment in any film of this type than Mapes’ reaction to her abusive father agreeing to stop saying horrible things about her to the media.
The rehabilitation of Mary Mapes
By the end, if she can’t convince the world the memos are real, maybe she can retain some dignity by convincing the independent panel investigating her conduct that her motives weren’t partisan. Giving Mapes that climactic moment of self-exculpation, rousing as it may be, only furthers the belief that the primary objective of Truth is to rehabilitate the reputation of Mary Mapes. How else to explain an earlier scene where Mapes rejects pursuing a story connecting Bush to bin Laden if not to prove she’s, to borrow the phrase, fair and balanced?
In front of the camera, there is Dan Rather, whom Vanderbilt gives little shading. Robert Redford plays the newsman with easy, paternal grace, ready with the perfect word for an admiring fan. If he felt any animosity towards Mapes or the ignominious fate that befell him, we don’t see it. (It’s also unclear whether he really drank as much as he does here.) Instead, Vanderbilt portrays Rather’s last broadcast, after having resigned as CBS Evening News anchor, as if he were Redford’s own Roy Hobbs, circling the bases in slow motion after hitting his final home run in The Natural.
Whose truth is it?
While Truth is ostensibly constructed as a high-toned, objective look at a high-profile failure of journalistic principles, it really is not – a fact that its two standout central performances cannot obscure. (Topher Grace’s Viacom-Bush bedfellows rant towards the end further erodes any claims of objectivity.)
That said, one cannot ignore Vanderbilt’s considerable skill in dramatizing the high pressure world of network TV news gathering. Truth is about as focused, polished, engrossing, and well-constructed a film as you’ll see this year. But it is not a hero’s journey. Mary Mapes blew it, whether because her best wasn’t good enough or because she fell too in love with a scoop. It’s a shame because history will not look kindly upon George W. Bush, nor should it.
And since 2004, the concept of objective journalists following the facts wherever they lead has almost disappeared, if not in reality, then in public perception. Mary Mapes helped to create that perception, one that has left the American electorate woefully ill-informed.
Dir.: James Vanderbilt.
Scr.: James Vanderbilt. From Mary Mapes’ book of memoirs Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.
Cast: Robert Redford. Cate Blanchett. Topher Grace. Dennis Quaid. Stacy Keach. Elisabeth Moss. Bruce Greenwood. John Benjamin Hickey. David Lyons. Noni Hazlehurst.
Truth 2015 movie cast info via the IMDb.
Images of Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes in Truth: Sony Pictures Classics.