TORONTO – Americans often lament the influence of corporations in politics. And, of course, news organizations have made their political prejudices clear since the printing press was invented centuries ago. What often gets lost is the sometimes symbiotic relationship between all three entities. James Vanderbilt”s “Truth,” which debuted at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, is a striking reminder of how a corporation”s political needs can take precedence over their journalistic endeavors to disastrous effect.
In September 2004, veteran CBS news producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) oversaw a piece for the now defunct Wednesday night version of “60 Minutes” about President George W. Bush”s service in the Texas Air National Guard. Bush was running for reelection and leading in the polls partially thanks to third party attacks on the Vietnam War record of the Democratic nominee, John Kerry. Mapes was provided memos that questioned Bush”s service and landed an interview with Ben Barnes, the Lt. Governor of Texas during those years, who went on record admitting he”d made phone calls to get Bush into the Guard (as he also did for the sons of other prominent Texans). Dan Rather, the longtime host of the CBS Evening News, was the face of the report as he regularly contributed to “60 Minutes” at the time.
Initially, Mapes, Rather and the news division believed they”d finally corroborated the long running rumors regarding Bush”s shady National Guard service. Within hours, however, conservative blogs began criticizing the documents that were part of the report. Mapes, Rather and CBS issued reports disputing the criticism, but the furor from the blogs and the continuing coverage from their network competitors transformed it into a political scandal. The news division was accused of falsely trying to influence the outcome of the election. The whole affair was even dubbed “Rathergate” by some pundits in the media, a painful dig as one of the signature moments of Rather”s career was his tough questioning of president Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.
Eventually, CBS formed an independent panel to investigate the story. A panel that was filled almost entirely by prominent Republicans and/or conservatives including Dick Thornburgh, the U.S. Attorney General during the majority of President George H.W. Bush”s administration. Notably, their findings regarding the authenticity of the news report were delivered purposely after the Nov. election.
“Truth,” which is based on Mapes” first hand account “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power,” chronicles the entire story. It starts with the formulation of the original report, the parts that had to be cut due to lack of airtime and Mapes and her staff”s back and forth with both their sources and the network fact checkers. It pulls no punching depicting a network buckling at media maelstrom at its feet. If you were unaware, you can easily look up what eventually happened to Mapes and her staff, but its lasting legacy was the forced early retirement of Rather from the Evening News chair that January.
Similarly to “Spotlight,” another investigative journalism based film releasing this fall, Vanderbilt lets the real life events drive the dramatic narrative. No matter what your political beliefs its riveting cinema as Mapes watches colleagues she”s trusted for years buckle to outside interests and proven sources mysteriously recant what they”d previously confirmed on record. And when her family is pulled into controversy you simply can”t believe the dissenters would stoop that low (or maybe you can).
While the network”s attempts at a defacto cover-up are obvious, Vanderbilt doesn”t let Mapes off the hook. When she”s confronted about the fact she helped a source contact the Kerry campaign at his request Blanchett portrays Mapes as a woman who is simultaneously realizing what a horrible mistake she's made while at the same time attempting to justify her actions.
To say Blanchett is good here is a grave understatement. The two-time Oscar winner hasn”t portrayed a contemporary character of this ilk in arguably a decade and it results in a fiery freedom in her performance that”s incredibly refreshing for an actress who has spent much too much time in stilted period film roles. When Mapes is called before the investigative committee to defend herself, Blanchett delivers a ripping and powerful monologue that will be played at every tribute she”s given for the rest of her career.
The rest of the cast is quite strong including the trio who make up Mapes” investigative team: Dennis Quaid playing the “seen it all” Col. Roger Charles, Topher Grace as the idealistic Mike Smith and Elisabeth Moss as Lucy Scott (who sadly has the least to do on screen). Bruce Greenwood is quite good as then CBS News president Andrew Heyward while Dermot Mulroney and Stacy Keach shine in crucial cameos.
Sure, you can't avoid the fact Robert Redford is just doing Robert Redford as Dan Rather, but he channels the newsman”s gravitas in a way only someone of his own stature can. And, frankly, he”s damn good at it.
While Vanderbilt”s screenplay and the actors are all superb, where the movie falters slightly is in its style. The whole production feels very much like a studio or even glossy Miramax drama from the late ’90s, an era that pre-dates the material. In theory there”s nothing necessarily wrong with that except when it distracts from the proceedings. Editor Richard Francis-Bruce keeps things moving when they need to be and cinematographer Mandy Walker has always had a keen eye, but it all feels older than it actually is.
There are a number of eye-opening moments in “Truth” that weren”t public or have been largely forgotten in the 10 years that have passed since the supposed scandal. One is the aforementioned testimony by Mapes in front of the committee. Another is Rather”s heartbreaking on air goodbye which is wonderfully played by Redford and Vanderbilt. The one that might stick with you the most, however, is delivered by Smith in a newsroom confrontation with Heyward. It”s unclear if the encounter actually happened (it honestly feels like the most staged moment in the picture), but it blatantly reveals the political needs of Viacom, CBS” parent company at that time. Not only won”t you forget it but also might make you very, very angry.
You honestly can't ask for much more from a movie.
“Truth” opens in limited release on Oct. 16.