Writer: James Vanderbilt (screenplay), Mary Mapes (book)
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Stacey Keach, Philip Quast
Running time: 121mins
The lowdown: The 2004 controversy around 60 Minutes’ reporting of George W. Bush’s National Guard record makes for intelligent, entertaining viewing. Cate Blanchett is Mary Mapes, producer of the story, and Robert Redford plays legendary anchor Dan Rather, who put his reputation on the line to ask the question, did Bush get accepted to the National Guard to avoid service in Vietnam and then go AWOL?
The full verdict: Although set only 11 years ago, Truth seems like a period piece.
Set just before the explosion of social media, debuting director (and writer of Zodiac) Vanderbilt is clearly of the opinion the 2004 election between Bush and John Kerry was the last gasp of traditional journalism, now lost to the internet and corporate interests.
Blanchett (giving her second great performance of 2015 after Carol) delivers a fiery, committed performance as Mapes.
Physically abused by a drunken father, there are on the nose references to Mapes dedicating her life to battling bullies and Rather being a patriarch substitute. But, in Blanchett’s hands, what could be hokey or melodramatic is grounded and riveting.
A little man against the system story, room is made for audience friendly moments such as assembling the team, a bunch of total opposites including retired Lt. General Charles (Quaid), liberal firebrand Mike (Grace) and teacher Lucy (Moss).
Plus Dan Rather. Little known over here, Rather is a legendary figure in the US, Jeremy Paxman, Jon Snow and Superman in one clean-cut, all-American package. And Redford plays him dead straight, acknowledging parts of his persona haven’t aged well (he once signed off bulletins with a deep-voiced “Courage”), but that the job of questioning authority and reporting the news is a privilege being sacrificed to the needs of profit margins.
Mapes believes she has a great story when retired military man Bill Burkett (Keach) and Texan tycoon Ben Barnes (Quast) reveal incumbent president Bush was accepted into the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s to avoid active duty in Vietnam and vanished for at least a year of his service.
Vanderbilt delights in showing the process of building the story; assembling key players, verifying facts, the endless phone calls, jetting around the country to get the interviews.
Tempering this is the acknowledgement that the story was rushed to meet an earlier deadline, due to Dr Phil and Billy Graham blocking up the schedule in later weeks. In this acknowledgement is the suggestion that Mapes let her natural competitiveness and professional pride cloud her judgement, so experts’ doubts over the veracity of key documents were ignored.
This resulted in right wing bloggers attacking the story, smoke-screening the real questions with accusations that documents were produced on Microsoft Word because the font used hadn’t been invented (it had) and typewriters back then didn’t have the superscript “th” (they did).
So the real story was lost in the story about the story, meaning Bush did not have to account for any inconsistencies in his record despite troubling revelations in 60 Minutes’ piece. Online, early internet trolls fill comment boards with opinion passed off as fact and bilious attacks on Mapes.
Overhead, the fallout from the story threatens to take down all involved.
Vanderbilt moves the story along at a brisk clip, expertly weaving in journalistic and political commentary without lapsing into strident speechifying (though Grace does have a knockout scene lambasting 60 Minutes for being beholden to paymaster Viacom).
Where he stumbles is in liberal use of heroic music swells and Mount Rushmore style shots of Redford’s impressive profile.
These missteps keep the film a rung below Redford’s All The President’s Men. But, as news footage depicting a smug, triumphant Bush plays on the TV, this is a compelling reminder that a man who entered the White House on a “war president” ticket still has things to account for and the truth is not yet known.