Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford take us back to the 2004 CBS News scandal that saw senior producer Mary Mapes and veteran anchor Dan Rather pushed under the campaign bus
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid, Stacey Keach
Directed by: James Vanderbilt
Running time: 121 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
It’s not Good Night and Good Luck, but James Vanderbilt’s Truth is desperately trying to find the same deep notes of gravitas struck by George Clooney’s black and white masterpiece so unfairly snubbed by Oscar.
The first-time feature director and co-screenwriter wanted to spur a deep sense of moral outrage over the corporate and political manipulation of the news by showing it in procedural slow motion with a sympathetic character standing front and centre.
Clooney’s movie had Clooney as Fred Friendly and David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, two of the most respected journalists of a bygone era played by two of the most respected actors of the modern era. Even without colour, it was an easy sell.
And while Truth may have the benefit of Oscar winners Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford standing before the lens, it doesn’t have the luxury of a black and white landscape.
The harsh tones of the McCarthy era are easy to see decades later, now that history has tarred the Senator from Wisconsin as a “witch hunter” and turned his victims into folk heroes (witness the forthcoming Trumbo). There may be shades of grey when it comes to the nuances of humanity, but as far as history goes, it’s largely black and white.
Truth is about the big blurry Bush scandal from 2004, in which CBS reported details of the President’s time with the Air National Guard, suggesting he didn’t show up for duty.
The story was produced by veteran 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes and delivered by the iconic Dan Rather on September 8, 2004. Not long after, both would be kicked out the door of Black Rock and George W. Bush would return to his warm seat in the Oval Office.
In other words, Truth is all about clashes of colour: partisan reds and blues, and the full rainbow of light and dark that makes a hot story.
Mapes thought she was following that rainbow to a pot of gold when she was given the “Killian documents” – photocopies of memos allegedly written by Bush’s military commanders during his time in the reserves.
She and Rather followed the story, tried to get all the facts and corroborate the evidence, and eventually went to air with what they had: The President dodged duty in Vietnam using family connections to get into the Air National Guard, then failed to show up at the base for duty.
From the moment the movie begins, Mapes is defending her decision to go ahead with the segment. Sitting in an office, speaking to an unidentified suit with her arms crossed, we watch Cate Blanchett in the role of Mapes as she walks us through the media maelstrom.
Because the Bush years now sit like an old beer can on the mantel, they almost beg for potshots, so Truth’s big challenge isn’t selling the Bush story. Truth had to make us care about media integrity, and let us feel the tragedy of its slow death.
Blanchett’s character is the one burned at the stake for her actions, but Redford’s Rather is the one who carries the torch for the fourth estate, and becomes the human face of media martyrdom.
Both veterans give it a good shot, but given the film’s underlying desire to vindicate its heroes, it’s not surprising they’re both a little stiff as they struggle to adopt Vanderbilt’s proselytizing tone and make it serve the drama. Perhaps the best indication of the director’s take is the complete absence of Rather-isms — those folksy distillations of life that didn’t usually make sense and often felt random, such as “if a frog had pockets, he’d carry a handgun.”
Without them, Rather may be a sober and respected journalist, but he’s a lot less fun. Redford finds the right expression, but without prosthetics or the linguistic feel, he feels like a blank cheque of personality.
Despite the void, we’re still suitably outraged by the final frames, but Truth is, Truth isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. In the words of Mapes herself: “Journalism has become corporatized, trivialized and castrated.”
It’s a sad state of affairs, but sadder still is the hope that the reservoir of artifice and celebrity that is Hollywood could possibly help in an endeavour called Truth.
THE EX-PRESS, October 30, 2015