James Vanderbilt’s TRUTH is a careful, disturbing dissection of the triumph of style over substance, flash over facts, insinuated itself, and then took over, television news. Based on the book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power by Mary Mapes, it examines that moment in history when the eponymous truth became a side issue, ceding pride of place in reporting the news to innuendo and to both political and corporate pressure.
Mapes (Cate Blanchett) was a star producer at CBS News in 2004, assigned exclusively to CBS anchor Dan Rather, with whom she has a filial relationship, on Rather’s reports for 60 Minutes II. She had just broken the Abu Ghraib story, which went on to win a Peabody Award, when she received a lead on a story about President George W. Bush that she had started working on four years before. Forced to abandon it in 2000 due to a family crisis, she takes it up again when she gets a fresh lead courtesy of a stringer (Topher Grace). Working around pre-emptions that accommodate revenue-magnets for the networks, and wanting to avoid an “October Surprise” with an election looming, Mapes and her team (Grace, Dennis Quaid as an ex-military office with a keen understanding of his former profession’s subtlety, and Elizabeth Moss as a cerebral journalism professor and ace reporter) have five weeks to get the story ready for national broadcast. The pressure is on to confirm facts, verify documents, have witnesses go on the record, and otherwise create a complex, fact-rich story that fits the time constraints of a one-hour prime time news show.
Vanderbilt takes the procedural approach to telling the story, but infuses it with Mapes’ passion for getting the story, and for getting the story right while making decisions on the fly. The adrenalin in palpable, as is Mapes’ passion for standing up to bullies.
Blanchett, afire with fervor to find the clues in the stacks of paper trails, dogged in pursuing witnesses who invite her to do physically impossible sexual acts, and suitable outraged when the truth of her investigation is lost in piddling details that have no bearing on the conclusions. In adapting the story, Vanderbilt makes smart use of cinema as a visual medium. No moment sums that up better than a scene where the minutiae of a disputed document in the form of a superscript and the typewriter that might putatively have produced, at best ancillary part of the story at hand, becomes the center of controversy, while in the background a television is showing the now-discredited Swift Boat campaign against presidential candidate John Kerry. To refresh the memory, it was a commercial that sought to itself discredit Kerry’s distinguished military record of serving in Vietnam, service which included two Bronze Stars, when said record threatened to overshadow Bush’s military service in the Texas Air National Guard. It’s tissue of half-truths and innuendo succeeded in discrediting a heroic military career.
Are the powers behind that smear campaign the same ones fueling the backlash against the Mapes story? TRUTH does not impose a conclusion, but rather makes another very smart decision by examining the temper of the times, with a news business that is being folded into the entertainment industry, and an internet presence that can make an accusation without anything to back it up, and have the accusation become the story.
The casting is sterling. Robert Redford, an icon in his own right, playing Rather, another icon, is a slick bit of shorthand, using nothing more than star presence and a Texas accent to bridge the gap between the two men, with no disrespect to Redford’s thespian acuity. He makes the self-consciously polite, carefully affable Rather a man of deep conviction, not caricature. Grace has the right note of impetuous zeal for exposing a cover-up, as well as the ironic edge of someone who knows his brand of journalism is essentially over that is a nifty contrast. But this is Blanchett’s film, overshadowing even Redford. First seen as an emotional wreck, knitting in an ante-rom as she awaits a meeting with the lawyer who could save her network job, through the elation shown in flashback of putting the story together, to the stunned disbelief that her story, her job, and her reputation could be called into question over something so trivial, she is a Valkyrie, but one who understands both the value of nuance, and of when to pull out all the stops. She is tough, but she is also never anything less than breathtakingly human.
Kudos again to Vanderbilt for sticking to the story, and not making it a film about a woman trying to have a career and a family. Mapes may be absent-minded making breakfast for her young son, or snap at her husband after a rough day, but this is never less than a solid family that has never considered bowing to conventional gender roles. Or of considering them at all, for that matter.
TRUTH is a meticulous and provocative piece of filmmaking, unafraid of detail, and equally fearless in allowing people to be complex. There are no villains here. That would be too easy as a storytelling device, and too easy in allowing us the comfort of believing that everything we see or hear or read from a new organization is the whole story.