Truth is the latest film in a long history of the sub-genre mystery film about the power of the media, media bias, and credibility of journalists’ sources. 1976 was the banner year for this type of film with both Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men and Sidney Lumet’s Network, one fictional and the other prophetic. In 1999, Michael Mann’s The Insider explored the inter-workings of 60 Minutes and Mike Wallace’s interview with a tobacco industry whistleblower Jeff Wigand. Competing with these quality tales and a handful of other films, writer/director James Vanderbilt’s Truth has big shoes to fill in the telling of CBS 60 Minutes producer’s Mary Mapes’ 2004 coverage, of then President George W. Bush’s 1960s service career in the Texas Air National Guard.
This tragic tale (depending on your political perspective), adapted from Mapes’ book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power, details the eight or so months that lead to the downfall and resignation of Mapes and the otherwise reputable CBS news anchor Dan Rather. Vanderbilt’s selected some of the finest Hollywood contemporary screen stars as his leads, the two-time Oscar winning Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, the iconic Tinsel town pretty boy (who’s now showing his distinguished wrinkled complexion of nearly four score years).
Vanderbilt creates tremendous empathy for Mapes and Rather by allowing his leads to exploit their very different acting styles most effectively. Like Blanchett’s driven and emotional performances in Blue Jasmine and The Aviator, her version of Mapes is appropriately foul-mouthed, non-stop in her pursuit of the controversial story, making connections with ex-Texas military men who knew Bush, getting confirmations on somewhat dubious memos, and defending herself against investigations that would eventually cause her to lose her job.
The laid back Redford, on the other hand, was never a “method actor” who immerses himself in a role, and becomes a “version” of Rather, with cool dignity and a charming demeanor, a newsman well aware of the CBS news department’s legacy — that began with Edward R. Murrow and continued with Walter Cronkite (whose names are not mentioned in the film). Ironically, as the film reveals in the end credits, Mapes and Rather win a 2005 Peabody Award for broadcast excellence in their news coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison atrocities in Iraq.
The first-time director Vanderbilt over-accents many scenes with melodramatic music and lighting to enhance the feelings of tension in conflict. For example, this occurs when the film details the investigation of more controversial aspects: in the validity and authenticity of Colonel Killian documents that suggest George W. Bush received special treatment to avoid service in Viet Nam in 1968, and Bush’s apparent neglect of duty in disappearing from detailed service records for nearly a year before landing a place in Harvard Business School in 1973. Supporting players, Dennis Quaid as Lt. Col. Roger Charles, Topher Grace as investigator Mike Smith, and Stacy Keach as supposed whistleblower Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, add standard television docudrama performances to the mix. I’d only wish all the parts fit together more effectively and didn’t feel so much like a slightly extra-polished television movie. Blanchett and Redford somehow deserved better.