James Vanderbilt’s Truth is a fact-based account of the story behind the fall of venerable CBS news anchor Dan Rather and 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) over the report that George W. Bush used family influence to stay out of the Vietnam War by getting into an elite unit of the National Guard. Notice the term “fact-based,” which is to say that the film is a dramatization, not a documentary (not that documentaries don’t fudge things to make their points). As such, how much you want to take it at face value is a personal call. CBS is so outraged over the film that they have refused to run ads for it. That’s not too surprising, since the film paints an unflattering picture of the company. The film has also set off a small frenzy among right-leaning bloggers and Internet commenters (and the inevitable outburst from the New York Post‘s Kyle Smith, who calls it “wacko”), which is also not surprising. At the same time, this kind of outrage only serves to increase my natural (and admittedly left-leaning) tendency to side with the film — even while thinking both sides overstate the case of what might have happened had the piece not been discredited.
Frankly, I was surprised by how much I liked the film. My interest level in the story was minimal, my faith in TV journalism shaky at best, and my desire to see the directorial debut of the guy whose career started with the screenplay for the execrable 2003 horror movie Darkness Falls nonexistent — especially at a 9 a.m. press screening on a Saturday morning. The fact that I have been less than overwhelmed by Robert Redford’s performances for some time didn’t help matters. So it was almost startling to see Redford create a wholly compelling character, especially out of a public figure like Dan Rather. The film’s screen time clearly favors top-billed Cate Blanchett (and she is typically excellent), but in a very real sense it’s Redford who holds the film in place — just by exerting a quiet authority and sense of innate decency.
The problem with tackling a story like this isn’t that it’s still something of political hot potato — that may in fact be in its favor — but that its outcome is known from the beginning. We go in knowing that Rather’s and Mapes’ careers are going to be destroyed by this, and yet the film is presented so well that it’s easy to get sucked into the drama. It is also helpful that the film uses a framing story — Mapes telling her potential defense attorney (Andrew McFarlane) the bulk of the film’s events — making it clear what we’re getting is her version of what happened. (The film is, after all, based on her book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.) Keeping that in mind means that it is only natural that the story we get is going to lean in her favor.
It’s surprising how well the film plays as drama, but that isn’t really the point. The drama is simply what makes Truth entertaining. The point isn’t even that although the memos that led to all this may not have been authentic (that has never been conclusively established) and Mapes and her co-workers may have been bamboozled by the source, Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) — the gist of what was in those memos was supported by others. All that is interesting. So is the fine detail on the pressures of deadlines, and the need for product. But none of this is what the film is after.
No, the film — sometimes too didactically — is ultimately about the erosion of journalistic integrity in an age where the news is at the mercy of a corporate mindset governed by profit. The irony here — assuming that Rather’s statement that 60 Minutes was the first news program in the history of TV news to make money is true — is that it’s a mindset created in part by the success of the very program that was taken down by it. While some of that may be viewed as opinion and while the film gets pretty obvious in its preaching, a look at TV news today only supports how far its journalistic worth has fallen. Rated R for language and a brief nude photo.