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It may be yesterday’s news, but there’s still plenty of juice left in Truth, a crackerjack journalism yarn in which big-name actors play big-name real-life characters who became embroiled in a controversy that still raises partisan hackles.
While this account of CBS News’ 2004 reporting of President George W. Bush’s questionable career in the Air National Guard clearly takes the view of the reporter protagonists, the story is nonetheless so thick with political motives on both sides — as well as evidence that remains murky to this day — that the film should first and foremost be appreciated as a first-rate account of the pressurized world of high-end TV news reporting. Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford lead a first-rate cast in an engrossing drama for which great media interest should translate into solid specialized-release box office for Sony Pictures Classics.
“Of course” a film based on former CBS News producer Mary Mapes‘ own book will tend to back her view of events, and “of course” a film co-starring Robert Redford as longtime CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather will have what is called liberal bias. But what seems to most consume writer and first-time director James Vanderbilt, author of the extraordinarily probing screenplay for David Fincher’s Zodiac, is going deep into the nitty-gritty of sourcing, reporting and connecting the dots in a mysterious story, something that Mapes did not do flawlessly enough to avoid being fired by the network and drag the venerable Rather and a few others down with her. As far as this film goes, the title would seem to refer to the search for truth rather than the absolute determination of it.
As an account of a relatively recent journalistic enterprise, Truth is superior in every way to the more mundane Spotlight, a look at The Boston Globe’s exposé of the Catholic Church’s longtime policy of covering up the clergy’s sexual abuse of youngsters that has nonetheless been quite well received at festivals.
For starters, Truth is blessed with another galvanizing performance by Blanchett, who comes on strong but in a very human way as a high-powered newswoman seemingly at the top of her game. The main breadwinner in her family (she has a husband and son at home), Mary Mapes has clearly had to work very hard to get where she is but also has a lot to show for it; she’s at the very top of her profession.
In the summer during the ramp-up to the 2004 presidential contest, discontent over the Iraq War is making Bush’s prospects for re-election look questionable. His non-service in Vietnam and what was sometimes alleged as special treatment in the National Guard prior to heading off to Harvard Business School were always touchy subjects, but now word comes Mapes’ way that Bush may even have shirked duty and possibly not fulfilled the terms of his service in the Guard.
This hot stuff provokes Mapes to put together a small team, including a former Marine (Dennis Quaid), a professor (Elisabeth Moss) and a researcher (Topher Grace). Almost everyone with Bush family connections in Texas refuses to talk, of course, but one key figure, the elderly and sick Retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), reluctantly provides Mapes with some incriminating information and a couple of documents to back it up. It’s enough to get CBS on board with her and Rather determined to report it.
Still, it’s an election year, and any evidence liberal CBS offers up against Bush is guaranteed to meet with withering opposition from all the president’s men, beginning with the Texas crowd. The general word is that any genuinely compromising documents about Bush’s National Guard days have long since been suppressed or pulled out of the records, but the network feels confident enough in the Mapes team’s reporting and the authenticity of the documents that it goes with the story. After Rather delivers it on the air, the whole team basks in the afterglow of a job brilliantly done.
But the administration’s response catches everyone off guard. The key documents, the Bush team says, were printed in a typographical format only available on Microsoft Word; given that all documents in the late 1960s were written with manual typewriters, the documents are fake. Burkett then tries to recant, and the wind that for a time was filling the news crew’s sails is now whipping them in the face.
Both sides lawyer up and, when it’s clear with whom the momentum lies, CBS begins distancing itself from its longtime star producer and, ultimately, its veteran news anchor. Vanderbilt includes just enough about Mapes’ personal life for the viewer to have a sense of how her attentive husband and lively son accept taking second place to her professional life, and he’s smart not to take gratuitous swipes at the Bush team; there’s an understanding that this is the way the big boys play, no matter which team you’re on, and if you’re in power, you’re going to enjoy exercising it and want to keep on doing so.
Still, there’s got to be a fall guy, or in this case the gal at the center of it, one who must face a veritable murderer’s row of hostile lawyers and administration gunslingers; under the circumstances, Mapes acquits herself honorably, even if she can’t prevent herself from getting her two cents in near the end when she assumes she’s getting the heave-ho anyway.
Blanchett gives this dynamo of intelligence and doggedness a real human dimension that allows the propulsive drama to breathe; it’s another stellar performance that rates among her best. His hair reddish-brown rather than salt-and-pepper, Redford doesn’t closely conform to Rather’s looks, but he nonetheless comes to inhabit the role very credibly, his very familiarity merging with that of the real man he’s playing. Presumably accurately, or the filmmakers wouldn’t have included the detail, Redford’s Rather is very often seen with a cocktail in hand and more than once admitting that he’s already had three; several of the other characters, including Mapes, clearly enjoy their booze as well, a testament to the habits of many generations of journalists past.
Supporting roles are all well filled, notably by Keach as the ambivalent and ailing key source and Bruce Greenwood as the increasingly perturbed head of CBS News, Andrew Heyward.
You’d never guess that the film was shot almost entirely in Australia. First-rate production values are led by Mandy Walker’s smooth cinematography and production designer Fiona Crombie’s vast number of attractive interior settings.
Production company: Mythology Entertainment
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, John Benjamin Hickey, Dermot Mulroney, Dennis Quaid
Director: James Vanderbilt
Screenwriter: James Vanderbilt, based on the book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power by Mary Mapes
Producers: Brad Fischer, William Sherak, James Vanderbilt, Brett Ratner, Doug Mankoff, Andrew Spaulding
Executive producer: Mikkel Bondesen
Director of photography: Mandy Walker
Production designer: Fiona Crombie
Costume designer: Amanda Neale
Editor: Richard Francis-Bruce
Music: Brian Tyler
Casting: John Papsidera, Nikki Barrett
Rated R, 121 minutes
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