A journalist is only as good as their word. Lose that, and they’ve got nothing. Dan Rather was once the most trusted face on television, for decades delivering the tough truths no matter how hard they were for a nation to swallow. And then…just like that, it all went up in a puff of smoke because of one controversial story. Not just a story, because of one detail of a controversial story that angered the wrong people. James Vanderbilt’s directorial debut, “Truth”, chronicles with crackling newsroom energy the scandal that became known as “Rathergate”, but ironically the film tends to be a bit fuzzy on the details, leaving it open to scrutiny.
The film is based on the book by former “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), a force in TV news who had earned acclaim for breaking the Abu Ghraib story. Now she needed another gripping story, one that could spark similar global debate. What she came up with was a potential powder keg; a story that suggested President George W. Bush had gone AWOL from his military service in the Texas Air National Guard while others were shipping out to fight in Vietnam. To get an idea how explosive this could be, consider that it was 2004 just weeks before the Bush’s re-election bid against war veteran John Kerry, who was in the process of being “swiftboated” into oblivion. If something like this were to get out it would definitely affect the election, but what a juicy story it would be!
Vanderbilt gets the speed which the news business works, especially a decade ago when it was beginning to be seen as less of a public trust and more of a financial burden. The emphasis was less on hard journalism and more on ad revenue and TV ratings. Mapes was quickly swept up in it as CBS pushed her to get the story done in time for the elections when it will have the most impact. Assembling a team of eager sleuths that included Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), crusading newshound Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), a journalism professor, Mapes doggedly tracked the men who might have all of the answers. Most of these men are older, fearful of their cushy positions in the military or the government, and hesitant to talk. However, Mapes lands one key document that turns out to be the smoking gun. She has her story, and it’s tight enough to give to Rather for air on “60 Minutes” in just a few days.
Turns out it wasn’t as air tight as Mapes might have thought, and before long the key document is being torn apart in the press and denied by those who previously verified it. Pretty soon that story isn’t looking so good, and CBS starts getting nervous. Rather, who mostly shuffles in and out when something important needs to be said, sticks up for Mapes all the way. They stick up for one another, actually, leaning on their professional and personal bond to see them through. It doesn’t help; not when the media is obsessed over the typeface on the story’s key document. That’s what it boils down to; typeface. Whether the story is true or not gets lost because the font might have been wrong.
Such is the nature of journalism now, and Vanderbilt laments the passing of a time when a network’s news division was seen as the gold standard. You can tell because Mapes and her colleagues are all clearly defined as the muckraking heroes of this story. They had the guts to speak truth to power and were brought down by a powerful and corrupt system, which included execs at CBS’ parent company, Viacom. While the conclusion Mapes’ story draws may have been true (it was never officially denied by the Bush Administration), nothing excuses her half-assed sourcing which relied on easily contradicted evidence. Mapes, who is played by Blanchett with “Blue Jasmine” levels of exasperation, delivers inspiring words to her peers about their responsibility as journalists. But it’s nothing compared to Rather, who mostly offers pearls of wisdom such as, “You stop asking questions, that’s when people lose.” Both Blanchett and Redford are terrific, as expected, especially Redford who has that commanding veteran presence which Rather must have carried.
“Truth” is a solid film about an issue which remains a hot topic for political wonks. But this is Mapes’ story told only from her perspective, and having such a skewed view, entertaining though it may be, makes the film’s title a little dishonest.