Truth (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language and a brief nude photo
Running Time: 121 min.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Bruce Greenwood, Elisabeth Moss, Stacy Keach, John Benjamin Hickey, Dermot Mulroney, David Lyons, Andrew McFarlane, Rachael Blake
Director: James Vanderbilt
Screenplay: James Vanderbilt (based on the book, "Truth and Duty: The Press, The President, and the Privilege of Power", by Mary Mapes)
Review published November 1, 2015
Mary Mapes' 2005 memoir, "Truth and Duty", provides the basis for this docudrama directed and scripted by James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, White House Down), based on true events that occurred shortly before the 2004 Presidential Election. Mapes (Blanchett, Cinderella) was an acclaimed producer for the long-running and largely popular CBS primetime news show, "60 Minutes", who gets a hot tip to look into a story involving the military service of President George W. Bush during the Vietnam War, who was actively seeking re-election against Senator John Kerry, whose own decorated military service in Vietnam during the had been called into question in a series of paid advertisements. Photocopied documents purport to show that Bush received special treatment do to coming from a privileged and powerful family, resulting in softer service in the Texas Air National Guard.
With time constraints to consider, the story is run within days from CBS News anchor Dan Rather (Redford, A Walk in the Woods) on "60 Minutes II", pokes holes in the story of Bush's days of service, including an extended period when he appears to have gone AWOL, as well as being released from service early in order to attend Harvard Business School. However, just as soon as the journalists involved pat themselves on the back for a job well done, questions begin to emerge as to the authenticity of the documents, mostly stemming from the font type and letters in superscript, that leads to the story beginning to unravel, and the stake of everyone involved in the piece, including the very popular and respected Rather, comes into scrutiny by the internet, the other media sources, and an internal investigation by CBS to save face.
Although the subject is about the lack of vetting involved with evidence used for the reporting of a supposed bombshell of a story on the most popular news program on television, it's clear from the style of Truth that Vanderbilt's sympathies clearly lie with Mapes, Rather, and the rest of her team, who maintain that their story could still hold water even without the questionable papers. The main argument of Rather and Mapes is that, even if the authenticity of one piece of their exposť is in question, that's only one piece. Just because one can't definitively prove that sourced material is 100% authentic, does that mean the investigated incident never happened? In the maelstrom of the investigation on font types and superscripts, the forest is no longer visible for the trees, as Bush goes from under scrutiny to looking like he's being smeared by the liberal media, turning a potential setback into a strength as he coasts to an election day victory.
Solid performances keep the film buoyant, thanks especially to another finely nuanced turn by Blanchett, who exudes fierce determination that covers over a great deal of emotional vulnerability underneath, often in ways that makes Mapes seem like a fascinating figure. The supporting cast has moments to shine, including some good moments for Stacy Keach (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), Topher Grace (American Ultra), and a solid turn from Dermot Mulroney (Insidious: Chapter 3) as the skeptical head of the investigation committee who feels that Mapes' political beliefs may be more of an influence on whether she finds a story truthful or not, much more so than cold hard facts. Redford is always a welcome presence, though he still seems more Redford than Rather, even with adopting some of the newsman's cadence and some ear prosthetics to capture him a little. Despite a few key emotional turns for the performers, Truth's best moments come not through what the story means to the lives of the individuals involved so much as what it means to the world of journalism as a whole.
The story at the heart of Truth isn't as interesting as the overall commentary regarding the state of journalism as a whole, especially in the current partisan and profit-driven climate, always under severe analysis from the people with plenty of axes to grind all over the internet. With so many media sources to turn to, and with being the first to scoop a big story the predominant factor in whether to pursue one, the notion that sloppiness can result because of this need to generate ratings through getting out there first with something juicy is something worth pondering in this era of attention-grabbing headlines. First-time director Vanderbilt indeed knows this, as the movie never definitively gives us any evidence one way or another as to whether the questionable documents are real or phony, and, perhaps even larger, whether Bush indeed was given a free pass while supposedly serving in the National Guard due to his family status. Mostly, the movie presents its evidence to have us question what exactly is truth, and whether it's right to throw the entirety of the story because there's a smaller piece of the larger puzzle that hasn't been 100% vetted.
Truth, while always quite watchable, doe begin to suffer a bit in its last several scenes, primarily because Vanderbilt struggles to find a way to end his film in a satisfactory way. Though he gives it a valiant effort, attempts to try to find silver linings amid the darkest of storm clouds for those involved seems completely disingenuous. Chalk some of it up to rookie directorial mistakes, as there may be too many balls in play for a newcomer to properly juggle, particularly when casting seasoned and highly acclaimed actors like Blanchett, Redford and company to provide much of the film's context. Also, as Vanderbilt is also the screenwriter, he isn't inclined to do as much of the necessary trimming and refocusing of the material that another more seasoned director no doubt would with this rather talky script that seems built to shoehorn in more character actors, rather than streamline to just what's really important thematically. The end of the movie goes for emotional beats, including slow motion shots that are overly sentimental, especially as it appears to suggest that sloppy journalists are martyrs to their cause, treating investigations into their motives and lack of due diligence as a politically motivated witch hunt. Clearly, this story means a great deal to its writer-director, but for us, he didn't do enough to make that passion he has translate to us such that we feel the same about the subject inside as he does.
I suppose that's appropriate enough for a movie about a news program producer who similarly had many items to juggle to try to convey to her own viewing audience the significance of material that she felt was dynamite stuff, or 'a tasty piece of brisket' as it is called in the story. Vanderbilt's movie, like Rather's story, is full of very interesting pieces and players, all of whom definitely make for a story worth following, and yet there are a couple of weak links here and there that ultimately weaken the overall case. Truth isn't so much about 'Truth' as much as it is about 'Consequences' when pushing forward the notion of something as the truth is called into question. The real problem is that, like the baby with the bathwater, sometimes the real truth gets thrown out when the questionable parts can't be proven, and Mapes and Rather know those consequences all too well.
©2015 Vince Leo