Director: James Vanderbilt
R | 2h 5min | Biography, Drama | 4 March 2016 (UK)
James Vanderbilt’s Truth – a dramatisation of the retracted 60 Minutes news expose into the alleged draft dodging of President Bush during the 2004 presidential election – arrives into UK cinemas at a propitious time. Another “journalism movie” – Spotlight – has enjoyed plenty of attention in its run up to the 2016 Oscars, generating plenty of ink on the importance in the digital era of protecting the increasingly-fragile fourth estate. We are also in the year of another highly-polarising US presidential election campaign. Yet despite the intriguing subject matter, Truth is a real misfire, despite hailing from the pen of the superb crime thriller Zodiac. In large part the film falls down because it comes off looking like it doesn’t want to practice what it preaches.
At the heart of this story is the real-life character of Mary Mapes, a producer on the revered US current affairs show 60 Minutes. Mapes is played by Cate Blanchett, an actress who has no problem filling the screen with her presence, and she’s probably a good choice to play Mapes, who is presented to us as a ballsy, driven leader possessed of a nervous energy that turns out to be both a strength and a liability. She works closely with the legendary news anchor Dan Rather; played with maximum nobility by liberal figurehead Robert Redford in a casting decision that feels somewhat inevitable given his history and aura. Despite a career that involved breaking the Abu Ghraib torture scandal (for which she won a Peabody, as the film reminds us) it is Mapes’s fate to lead her news team full throttle into what became known as The Killian Documents controversy (a.k.a. “Rathergate”) in the days leading up to the 2004 presidential election. Mapes chooses to air a segment on 60 Minutes exposing how President Bush avoided being drafted to Vietnam through his father’s political advantages. She is clued into the existence of documents from National Guard Air Force commanders mentioning Bush’s transgressions – including failing to hit basic training levels and even going AWOL- by a strange and evasive former military officer called Bill Burkett (a pleasingly unsettling turn from Stacey Keach).
Despite the shady Burkett refusing to admit where the got the documents from – documents which aren’t even the originals – Mapes presses ahead, knowing the deadline is coming up and that this story could be a ‘hot piece of brisket’ as her college puts it: a phrase that will get them into trouble later. Seemingly convinced that the President fits the bill of a draft dodger, despite questions being raised by various CBS figures about the degree of verification the documents might need, and with many National Guard figures refusing to corroborate the material, Mapes and her team put the story on air with confidence, only to have the sky fall on their heads when various talk radio hosts, bloggers and numerous mainstream media sources start tearing into the veracity of the documents. This section of the film is where it hits its stride: actually managing to make conversations and arguments about the font and letter spacings in memos written on Microsoft Word vs 1970s typewriters feel weighty and tense, with the team soon realising, especially when Burkett admits he embellished his story from the get go, that their careers are on the line. The atmosphere of gnawing professional fear and shame becomes quite palpable.
But just when the scene seems set for a provocative exploration of journalistic ethics, the intersection of politics, personalities and news, and the dynamics of corporate-owned news media, the film blows it, though it was stumbling before. For one thing this film has a problem script-wise; awkwardly veering from subjecting the viewer to an onslaught of detail to moments where characters that do that irritating thing where, to ensure you understood the last bit of exposition, they ask loudly: “are you telling me the President of the United States said/did XYZ?” If the script doesn’t manoeuvre you into the right place, there is the heartstring-pulling score to finesse you the rest of the way.
But the real problem is that Vanderbilt and his writers don’t seem to know how to approach this complex subject and the film’s lead character consistently in a way that feels nuanced and interesting. There was potential here to explore the twists and turns of the compromised situation Mapes found herself in, with all the questions her ultimate fate raises about the elasticity of journalistic ethics, the potential for political motivation to affect the pursuit of a story, and the pressures producers face operating in a newsroom that is part a corporate entity (CBS was owned by Viacom, a constant source of ire to Mapes’s more radical-minded colleague Mike, played here by Topher Grace). But the lionising of both Mary Mapes and Dan Rather (and how can casting liberal icon Robert Redford as the famed journalist be seen as anything other than lionisation) feels out of synch with the film’s acknowledgment in the plot that they did ultimately back a story that was based on some unverifiable documents handed to them by a confessed liar. Surely that kind of decision makes arguments like ‘maybe the story was still true’ irrelevant. If your evidence is unreliable, journalistically how can you claim to be right? Isn’t that the polar opposite of the journalistic ethos?
This writer has no love for, or fond memories of, the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush, yet still it seems by the end of the film that serious journalistic mistakes were made, all based on evidence that too many in Mapes’s CBS team automatically assumed must be true by default given who their target was. Yet by showing us endless shots of a sorrowful Mapes downing wine and fretting over the news cameras that now – ironically – sit outside her house, and by casting Redford in a saintly glow (he even gets a slow motion off-with-the-jacket sequence as Rather signs off for the last time before an applauding crowd) director Vanderbilt comes off like he wants the actual revelations of journalistic failings to be whispered out of the side of the film’s mouth rather then put front and centre to spark a real discussion.
So clumsy is the film’s execution that the characters who are set up to be the corporate-minded villains of the whole affair – senior white men in suits given to sneering questions about Mapes’s political allegiances and her lack of verification – often come off like they are on the right side of the argument. Facing a CBS investigatory panel in the film’s final act, Mapes is framed so as to appear victimised, pictured alone against a group of men with only a sympathetic but frank lawyer in tow. She rails against questions about her suspected liberal political sympathies and how they may have coloured her reporting. But her victim status feels unearned when she seems unable to answer the basic charge, as one sombre panel member eventually shoots at her to cut through the chatter, that she didn’t prove beyond reasonable doubt the documents were real instead of just assuming that both they and the source were legit right from the get-go.
This writer found Mapes’s answers evasive here and elsewhere and wishy-washy, even veering into conspiracy theory territory at times (Mapes gets a long and rambling spiel about the amount of effort you would have to go to fake documents like this, as if she never heard of the Hitler diary fraud), but the film itself seems content to handle her gently, as if to say that, so long as the story was aimed at the general ballpark area and the intentions of all were good, we should basically move along. This seems to be the opposite of the message Dan Rather spends a good deal of time imparting to us viewers in all those to-camera addresses set to stirring music: “keep asking the questions.”
Likewise the film’s cagey approach ensures that the most openly left-wing truthseeker – Mike – when ranting vehemently in front of his co-workers that Viacom’s links to the Republican party make the investigation of their story deeply suspect, ends up looking like he is more interested in deflecting the uncomfortable facts rather than making a (admittedly valid) point about the problematic aspects of the industry. Instead of sounding nefarious, the editor who reprimands him sounds like a voice of reason when he slaps Mike down with harsh sarcasm: “Yeah, you didn’t run a bad story. It was all just a conspiracy.” To put it bluntly: it is much harder to take someone’s claim that their own industry is undermining them seriously when they have put their name to a piece of shit. It sounds like the whining of a sore loser or someone desperate to avoid facing their own poor judgement and bias. Scenes like this are where the characters most feel like mouthpieces, not real people.
It seems just a tad dishonest and odd to base a film that lauds the importance of patient, determined and impartial journalism in such a po-faced fashion on the real-life story of a group of reporters who failed to keep to that ethos, despite the great work they did earlier. This film is no disaster, but you’d be better off seeing Spotlight instead if you want to witness the fourth estate at its best.