Who doesn’t know of Dan Rather’s 2004 fall from grace as one of the most respected investigative reports and journalists in television history. From revered war correspondent to the voice of CBS news post-Walter Cronkite to hard-hitting anchor of “60 Minutes”, Rather was a face and a voice we could trust; until he reported a story about George W. Bush and his military career. However, for those who may have had their head in the sand or hiding under a rock all these years and don’t know of the incident, in a nutshell, news segment producer and long time Rather colleague and friend Mary Mapes, spearheaded a story investigating allegations that Bush used the family name and connections to avoid military service in Viet Nam and instead serve stateside in the Texas Air National Guard in 1968. Despite vetting of the story by Mapes and her team in developing it for “60 Minutes”, there were some apparent oversights in investigation and “rushing to beat the competition” that were sufficient to raise the ire of the Bush family and the conservative right wing supporters, prompting threats of litigation against CBS and all concerned. (Of note is that at the time the story broke, John Kerry was leading Bush in the polls by a slim margin.) Jumping into damage control mode, CBS fires Mapes and her team and Rather is forced to resign.
Based on Mary Mapes’ 2005 book, “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power,” writer/director James Vanderbilt dives head first into the media maelstrom creating a clean, clear and concise timeline of events, focusing in key moments in Mapes’ investigative process, e.g., six documents from Bush’s commander Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian which subsequently become the focus of “typewriter font” investigations, authentication processes, specific phone calls by Mapes with military corroborations, etc., as well as touching on Mapes’ own backstory and difficult childhood with an alcoholic and abusive father, thus setting the tone for her own paternal relationship with Dan Rather.
“Truth” boasts another juggernaut by Cate Blanchett that is buoyed by an incredibly strong adaptation of Mapes’ book, eliciting all the intricate minutiae and ethics of not only investigative journalism, but the absurdity of corporate blinders. As Mary Mapes, Blanchett mesmerizes with steely, albeit at times frenetic, resolve. The emotional and ethical stoicism Blanchett delivers – and that defiant confident stare that commands the screen – are killer. And yet, when Mapes knows her well designed story and argument is falling apart, Blanchett adds little tics of body language that show the confidence cracking and fear seeping in; the head tilts down, the eyes no longer meet those of the challenger – as if she’s trying to regroup her thoughts and grasp for new argument while adding a bit of shame at not being perfect or perhaps at jumping the gun. The nuance is sparkling.
As part of Mapes’ producing team, Mike Smith and Lt. Col. Roger Charles, Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid, respectively, these two just feed on one another to delicious result. Both are calm in the eye of the swirling storm, particularly Quaid who perfectly captures the military mindset and ability to see beyond the obvious. Elisabeth Moss is a bit grating as another key team Mapes player, Lucy Scott, and often rubs the wrong way, but that’s not to say Moss’s work isn’t solid and effective. No surprise here, when it comes to positions of authority, as always Bruce Greenwood is the man, and as CBS news honcho Andrew Heywood he doesn’t disappoint. His dialogue delivery when the story and the CBS reputation is drowning, is dripping with caustic disdain that really gives the audience a look into the machinations of networks.
And then there’s Robert Redford. While his performance as Rather is stellar – particularly the affected speech pattern of Rather which Redford nails without turning it into a mockery or imitation – sad is that Rather comes off as a buffoon. Where is the hard hitting combat journalist that put him into the anchor chair? We see none of that. Anyone who goes into this film remembering the Dan Rather “that was” will be saddened when the curtain is pulled back and we are met with nothing but a shell, a figurehead, blurred by bourbon, no longer taking interest or responsibility in the art of investigation itself. He believes his own “Teflon coated” press about himself. While the industry insiders have always known hidden things like this about not only Rather, but others similarly situated, to see the reveal – not just hear about it or read about it – but to see it, serves as a great expose on the news industry on the whole. Sure – let’s have three or four straight bourbons and then go do an interview. And let’s not prepare on our own as was once done, but rely on others to feed questions and notes. Sad commentary that Vanderbilt has meticulously constructed and displayed for all to see and Redford is the perfect person to fill the role.
Compounding Redford’s performance and the portrayal of Rather is that of Stacey Keach as Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett, the purveyor of the smoking gun that both made Mapes’ story and then destroyed it. Again, another fascinating thread in the tapestry and one that posits even more questions and thought for an audience, placing even more pressure on the news media to return to the days of true investigation, vetting and truth.
Even though we know the ultimate outcome of the unfolding events, Vanderbilt keeps us on edge, building tension at every turn while delivering a subtext that serves as commentary on the sometimes rampant obfuscation of the truth on every level.
With blinders off, we clearly see that “truth” is not what is the truth, but what one chooses to see and believe and bend to their own will. Can you handle the truth of “Truth”? Powerhouse!
Written and Directed by James Vanderbilt based on the Mary Mapes 2005 book, “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power”
Cast: Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett, Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacey Keach