by Hope Madden
James Vanderbilt’s Truth is hardly the first film to point out the folly of marrying journalism and profit. From Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece Network to last year’s creepily spectacular Nightcrawler, cinematic history is littered with brilliant examples of this disastrous partnership.
Truth stands apart for two reasons. 1) The recent history lesson is, in fact, a real life event, and 2) Cate Blanchett stars.
The film is at its best as an excavation of the bits and pieces of a 2004 story produced by Mary Mapes (Blanchett) and reported by Dan Rather (Robert Redford) for Sixty Minutes II, a now-defunct Wednesday night airing of the CBS news program.
In 2004, Mapes – having recently broken the story of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse – chose to dig in to George W. Bush’s less-than-impressive Texas Air National Guard records. It was the middle of an election during which his opponent John Kerry’s military record was being “swift boated.” It was also the dawn of an age in journalism: make enough noise about an inconsequential detail and the story itself becomes nothing but background noise.
Vanderbilt’s screenplay, based on Mapes’s book “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power,” chronicles both the details of the reporting and the larger machinations of political power-wielding and corporate gutlessness, landing on some tragic consequences for a population interested in the truth.
Conservative bloggers insisted Mapes used forged documentation – a fact that could never be 100% corroborated or dispelled – and in one of the ugliest scenes of corporate media overreaction and cowardice, CBS fired Mapes and her team and forced Dan Rather into disgraced retirement.
Like Vanderbilt’s screenplay for the David Fincher film Zodiac, Truth is alive with details. Unfortunately, Fincher’s skill behind the camera gave Zodiac the compelling pull of a mystery, where Vanderbilt’s focus waffles between minutia and big picture without an elegant flow.
There are moments of real greatness here, especially as the story begins to crumble before Mapes’s eyes, and decisions made in the heat of story construction come back to haunt her. Basically, Blanchett is perfect, even when the writing fails her, even when the direction feels underwhelming. She’s fiery and raw, creating a character who is naturally in battle at all times.
Redford, on the other hand, comes casually to Dan Rather. He does not look the part. He looks like Robert Redford, which is curious given that he’s playing a public figure. But it isn’t long into the performance that you find an understated, dignified man whose professionalism and scruples have fallen out of fashion.
The film is a scary, flawed, but fascinating look at a frighteningly flawed and fascinating business.