★ ★ ★ ½
In the months before the 2004 presidential election, 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) receives a tip from a co-worker about a potential cache of documents that call into question the military record of then-president George W. Bush. She assembles a crack team of investigative journalists (played by Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, and Elisabeth Moss) and begins an investigation into Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard, looping in CBS News anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) with the goings-on of their probe. The group find what they believe are numerous inconsistencies regarding Bush’s service, including substantial time spent AWOL and seemingly fudged flight records. Mapes is contacted by retired National Guard Lieutenant Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), who promises 60 Minutes the sought-after documents and an account of the faulty record keeping surrounding Bush’s service. Mapes and her team turn over their findings to Rather, and he decides to take the story to air as soon as possible. As the journalists struggle to meet the deadline, they end up bypassing important vetting procedures in the interests of time.
Authenticating the documents or doing in-depth research become an afterthought — Mapes feels that she has landed an even bigger scoop than the exposé on the Abu Ghraib prison that had aired on 60 Minutes earlier that year. The morning after the 60 Minutes special on Bush’s military service, the Internet is set ablaze with criticism and efforts to debunk the information presented by Rather. Bloggers discover that the most crucial memo regarding Bush’s time in the National Guard could be reproduced exactly with Microsoft Word’s default settings. What could have been an explosive inquiry into the military history of a sitting president devolves into a disaster involving fonts and superscripts, and finally an order from CBS head honcho Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood) forcing Rather to apologize on-air for the report. CBS then launches an internal investigation in an attempt to wash their hands of the debacle, which threatens the journalistic careers of the entire team — including Rather, a fixture at the network.
Indeed, Rather ends up facing the biggest fall from grace, as the debacle played a huge part in his unceremonious exit from CBS News the following year. In 2004, all the public really saw was the iconic newsman fumbling to salvage his legacy amidst the firestorm of controversy that this 60 Minutes report sparked. But Truth gives Rather, perhaps for the first time, a spotlight as the sympathetic character in all of this. His father-daughter relationship with Mapes created a bond of personal and professional trust — he stuck by his producer’s side until the bitter end. Considering that Mapes’ real father went on the offensive with a smear campaign against her at the height of the controversy, Rather’s behind-the-scenes role as Mapes’ support system is a nice touch from screenwriter/director James Vanderbilt.
It’s a bit difficult to buy a luminary like Redford as the legendary journo Rather, especially since they have such different voices and vocal tics. But the veteran actor ultimately has enough gravitas to fill Rather’s shoes (it helps that the newsman spends a lot of time in the background or offscreen). And the supporting cast of Grace, Quaid, Moss, and Keach are all outstanding, even if they’re stuck in underwritten roles. Yet in the end, this is Blanchett’s flick. Her turn as the fiery Mapes is infused with her trademark sincerity, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she delivers another masterful performance.
Truth works best as a commentary on modern journalism. Did Bush use familial connections to skirt responsibility in the National Guard during the Vietnam War? It’s certainly not made clear by the time the credits roll. Vanderbilt’s directorial debut is wise enough not to provide a definitive answer either way; despite some cloying moments, Truth is really a film about the public consumption of the news, the power of the Internet to discredit, and the willingness of a major network to drop its most storied anchor at the first sight of backlash. Once it was discovered that the memos could be duplicated digitally with ease, the court of public opinion quickly condemned Rather, Mapes, and anyone close to the story.
Vanderbilt spins an engrossing journalistic thriller from Mapes’ 2005 memoir, but Truth could have benefitted from a leaner script. The film is flooded with a cavalcade of under-explained names and dates, but its saving grace is its stellar cast, who more than make up for the sometimes uneven flow of the plot. It’s a dense picture, rich with minutia about a subject that many had stopped thinking about after it happened more than a decade ago. Truth succeeds in invoking the air of frustration shared by Mapes and her team — their desire to be judged by the accuracy of their claims instead of by the media quagmire that ensued. For fans of political/journalistic thrillers, Truth is a more than respectable entry in the genre.