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When I was in junior high and serving as the editor of my school paper, I met, through a relative, a man who worked as a producer at the iconic CBS news-magazine 60 Minutes. He was kind enough to take an interest in an aspiring journalist and invited me to spend a day with him at the network’s headquarters in New York. There, he walked me through 60 Minutes‘ offices, past the editorial conference rooms and editing bays and even down into the surprisingly small rooms where correspondents tape the show’s iconic segment-intros in front of a green screen, onto which is later added an image, producer credits and a ticking clock.
That day, I saw Bob Simon recording numerous takes of one such intro; peered in to Don Hewitt‘s empty quarters; spotted Ed Bradley reorganizing his office; and met Mike Wallace in a hallway. (All four of those men are now gone, but 60 Minutes lives on.) Eventually, I was told that the last stop on this unforgettable “field trip” would be a surprise, and I was led through cramped, seemingly endless bowels of the old building until I emerged in the newsroom of the CBS Evening News, and indeed right at the desk from which Dan Rather — Walter Cronkite‘s successor in the anchor chair and also a contributor to 60 Minutes II — had broadcast the news every weeknight of my entire life. To a young news junkie, it was all rather awe-inspiring.
All these years later, it saddens me that the first thing many of my contemporaries associate with 60 Minutes are two films, 1999’s The Insider and now Truth, both of which paint the tremendously important and influential program in a less than wonderful light. The Insider, which was nominated for best picture, is about 60 Minutes‘ initial unwillingness to run a segment, due to corporate considerations, that showed Big Tobacco knew the harmful effects of cigarettes long before they told the public. And Truth, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12, is about a 2004 60 Minutes II investigation into George W. Bush‘s military record that was subsequently so called-into-question that it effectively ended the careers of its distinguished producer, Mary Mapes, and her regular collaborator, Rather. (The “scandal” even has a nickname: “Rather-gate.”)
What is unusual about Truth — which James Vanderbilt adapted from Mapes‘ memoir and also directed — is that virtually everyone who might care to see it already knows the ending to the story. The film suggests there is much more to it than that — that Mapes and Rather actually did their due-diligence and were wrongly targeted as part of some sort of conspiracy (Topher Grace gets the privilege of saying as much) — but that’s highly debatable. Sure, Mapes, Rather and Co. were misled by sources and rushed by superiors, but the film itself shows that Mapes, despite her best intentions, didn’t ask enough questions, vet her sources thoroughly or pay heed to the doubts of some coworkers, and that Rather, who by 2004 had long been a chair-bound anchor more than a reporter, basically showed up when it was time to go in front of a camera but otherwise didn’t ask questions at all.
Other story angles seem strained or irrelevant. Did Mapes really feel, when she was under investigation, like she was being “hit again,” as she once was by her abusive father, or total shock and horror at finding mean things written about her online? Possibly — but I don’t get the sense that one gets to a position like the one she had without having very thick skin. Did Rather and Mapes really have a father-daughter bond? Perhaps — but isn’t it odd that the only contact shown between the two when things hit the fan was Rather slipping her the business card of a lawyer he wanted to recommend she use? And do Rather and Mapes actually speak in long and grandstanding monologues about journalism, as he does in the film when he rings her up (“Journalists now report on reporting…”) and as she does with the committee investigating her? Who knows — but it just doesn’t quite ring true.
None of this is the fault of the actors. Redford gets top billing, but this is Blanchett’s movie, she is the best thing about it and she’ll get serious consideration for a best actress Oscar nom (although she’s competing against herself in the category, since she’s also being pushed for the title role in Carol). Redford, meanwhile, has little to do but read from a teleprompter, act cool and deliver a couple of monologues. The fact that he shares Rather’s vibe of soft-spoken decency and intolerance for BS helps to preserve the illusion that he is Rather, unlike the color and parting of his hair — Rather’s is grey and parted on the left, not brown and parted on the right — although in the film’s final shot of Redford I must admit there was a moment in which I thought I was looking at Rather. Everyone else in the cast is fine. (Personally, I wish Elisabeth Moss had a few more lines.)
In short, Truth selectively recounts a series of events that were terribly unfortunate — they cost two smart, hard-working and accomplished people their jobs, haunted Mapes enough to write a book about them and caused Rather to tear up at the film’s premiere. But the fact is that top-tier CBS journalists should have known what even a street gangster on The Wire managed to figure out: “When you come at the king, you best not miss.” They came at “the king,” they missed — not entirely, but more than they should have — and they paid a price for that. So does their saga merit a film that casts them as heroes, or at least unjustly targeted villains? I’m not sure. I do believe that a narrative motion picture was probably the wrong format in which to re-litigate this saga. Ironically, it feels more fitting for a segment on 60 Minutes.
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