It seems so unnecessary to write an introduction for two of the most famous people in the world. “Oh, you might know Robert Redford from The Natural,” or, “You may remember Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for Best Actress not too long ago.” So, I am going to just assume with a good amount of confidence that you know who both of these people are.
The reason I am sitting in a New York City hotel banquet room with Redford and Blanchett is because of their new movie, Truth — which dramatizes the events that eventually cost CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather his job. Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, a longtime television news producer working on a story that could change the course of the 2004 presidential election: George W. Bush’s questionable service record in the Texas Air National Guard. After Rather (played by Redford) reports the story on 60 Minutes, all hell breaks loose after it’s revealed two documents, reportedly typed in the early ‘70s, appear to have been created with 2004 technology.
Of course, with a story like this, the topics discussed in an interview will veer toward politics. And Redford and Blanchett are not ones to shy away from opinions about current politics: Jeb Bush, Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina (whom Redford has dealt with personally and now calls “horrific”) are all discussed.
They also ponder if a story like what’s presented in Truth — a huge story in 2004 – would even have much of an impact only 11 years later, because of a) the way we consume media today and b) the way we react to media today. Would this just be a story we’d be mad about for one day then move on, like so many stories today?
When I met with Redford and Blanchett, I made small talk by mentioning that my mother had taken me to see Ordinary People, a movie Redford won an Oscar for directing and, little did I know, was one of Blanchett’s favorites. This set off Redford, recounting how the Oscar-winning film almost didn’t get made – which later morphed into Redford and Blanchett’s thoughts on how movies get made today and just why Redford, maybe one of the least-likely people to ever be in a superhero movie, decided to appear in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The second movie I ever saw in a movie theater was Ordinary People.
Redford: Your second movie?
My mom took me when I was very young.
Blanchett: Oh, Jesus. I remember seeing Ordinary People. I was in, how do you say it, year 11?
Redford: Stop, you guys…
Blanchett: No, no, it changed my life. It completely changed my life. I wept on and off for about two weeks. I so connected with the son. It killed me, that film. It absolutely killed me.
At that point, the only other movie I had seen in a theater was The Empire Strikes Back. They are very different.
Redford: You know what’s weird about that movie? It wouldn’t have gotten made. I wanted to make it because it was the first picture I was going to direct.
And it wins Best Picture.
Redford: Yeah, that was a surprise. To me, I wanted to do a film about behavior and feelings. So, I read this book and this feels like what I want to do. So, anyway, I hired a screenwriter to write it and I paid for him, off the radar. And then when we took it, the studios wouldn’t touch it.
Redford: No, no. They wouldn’t touch it. And then it went to Paramount. And at Paramount at that time, Barry Diller was the head of Paramount, you had Michael Eisner under him and Jeffrey Katzenberg was under him. Eisner didn’t get it; he didn’t understand what it was about. Katzenberg didn’t think it was commercial. When I told them I wanted to work with Mary Tyler Moore, they said, “Now you’re really up a tree. She’s America’s sweetheart. I said, “There’s another side to her.” It didn’t happen, then Diller stepped in…
Blanchett: Thank God.
Redford: He said, “The budget is $5 million, it’s yours; we won’t bother you if you make it for that budget.”
Ordinary People was one of my first experiences with Mary Tyler Moore, so for me, that was my introduction.
Blanchett: The atmosphere in that house, the atmosphere of her looking at him in that garden and him in the phone box in the rain – it’s burnt into my soul.
Redford: Everything had to be perfectly placed.
Blanchett: It was perfectly placed.
At the premiere of Truth last month at the Toronto Film Festival, Dan Rather spoke after the film and got really emotional. It’s interesting to see him embrace a film that is about a subject that obviously still hurts.
Redford: My feeling is that he gets his day in court. I don’t think he really got it when this event happened. I think it was shut down so quickly and he was out so fast, that was the end of that. I imagine Dan, all these years, has been carrying this ache about never really being able to speak his mind about what happened.
Does Mary Mapes feel the same way? She did write the book.
Blanchett: Yes, I think that was somewhat of a kneejerk response to not having been heard in Black Rock and, as you say, not having her day in court, either. Because if you read this, basically, this really fascinating, factual dry, multi-perspective account that she presented at Black Rock, it’s a timeline; it was very measured – and I think it was just not heard at all.
The night of the premiere, people were tweeting at me stuff like, “Oh, I bet they glossed over the fact-checkers at CBS wouldn’t verify the documents.” And I responded that all of that’s in there…
Blanchett: And who’s “they?” Who’s “they?!”
But the people on Twitter assumed there would be a bias, but this movie gives the sense someone was railroaded, but also that definite mistakes were made.
Redford: Yeah. There are mistakes. It’s honest and you give James Vanderbilt credit for that. But weigh those mistakes versus the mistakes the administration made.
People forget how close the Bush-Kerry election was, a story like this really could have changed a state like Ohio…
Blanchett: It’s true, or if she had broken the story during the Gore-Bush election, because the question mark over Bush’s service in the Guard had long been socialized in Texas.
I’m not convinced, 11 years later, this would be a big story that could shift anything anymore.
Redford: Well, that’s pretty interesting.
Jeb Bush’s “stuff happens” quote after a mass tragedy, Trump says whatever he wants, it doesn’t seem to matter what anyone says or does now.
Redford: Bush is getting nailed on that. He’s getting nailed on that.
He’s getting nailed, but it doesn’t seem to affect his poll numbers.
Redford: But you know, what I think is interesting, what’s beginning to happen: Out of the box, Trump, Trump, Trump. And out of the box, Bush is going to be the top guy. Now, Bush is going down and somebody is coming up. There’s Carly Fiorina, who is really a horror. So, you think, is anyone really going to take the time to really dig into who these people really are. I was just reading an article today about Carly. I had some dealings with her years ago…
Redford: I was trying to get support for Sundance from HP. And she came, so I had some dealings with her at that time and drew an impression, but she’s become even more extreme in the last few years. And now it’s getting revealed. There’s an article today that really takes apart what she’s saying and what’s she’s doing and what she claims, and it’s undoing all of it. And so I think you’re beginning to see the unraveling. And with Bush, it’s pretty clear what his story is and that’s beginning to be uncovered.
But people are more divided and the true independent seems to be shrinking, the person who would pay attention to that. People have “their person.” Couple that with how we get mad about a story for maybe a day, then move onto the next thing…
Blanchett: You talk about things being more divided, but all the elements have become more enmeshed. Everything’s played out in the same medium. The Kardashians exist in the same world that Trump and Ivana exist in. So, the form is the same, but the content should be wildly different, but it’s not.
Redford: That’s a good point.
Blanchett: When you get corporate America intersecting with the political arena, intersecting with the media, and the whole thing is sort of becoming this organism that is mutually dependent and very difficult to extricate any of the individual components – then it becomes very, very difficult to analyze any of the things independently.
You’re correct, and that’s why I question if this story hits like it did in 2004.
Redford: Well, it would be competing against a whole bunch of stories every minute, every day.
Blanchett: Mary and Dan – and I still think there are investigative journalists who feel the same way – have a strong dislike of hypocrites and bullies. And I think what stuck in their craw was the hypocrisy of what they thought was the Bush campaign hitting Kerry so hard with the swift boat stuff — and then not having fulfilled his military service. Whether you critique the story and say that they rushed it on air or there were sins of omission in the story, that particular question mark of Bush’s service had long been socialized. But not just in Texas, but nationally. Does it justify rushing a story if the actual story is considered to be newsworthy and there are enough sources both silent and outspoken? Does that justify the story going on if they didn’t dot all the “I”s and cross all the “T”s?
And the film doesn’t answer that question for the viewer. But I can’t help but think if I had an untrustworthy source on a low-stakes story, something like “Robert Redford to appear in another Captain America movie,” I can’t imagine running it. Let alone a high-stakes story about the president.
Blanchett: I remember when we were running Sydney Theatre Company, someone was told to get a story on us – so they said, “Oh, I’ll say that I’ve heard they’ve been fired.” So they ran a story that we’ve been fired, and not only had we not been fired, but we had been asked to stay on another term. But that story ran! And we knew, unlike 2004, if you don’t kill something within 15 minutes – which I’m sure it’s exponentially decreased the amount of time you’ve got now – it gets published three times on the Internet and it’s true.
Redford: And with the Internet, it’s exacerbated. The Internet exacerbates that, but it all roles back to the very beginning. It used to be that in journalism, to put somebody on the line, to quote somebody, you had to get two people on background. That’s gone. They just rush. They just go. They don’t wait for verification; they just go. So, therefore, you don’t know what’s true. It’s very hard to know where the truth is.
The origins of these documents still seem to be a mystery. You were immersed in this story, what do you think happened?
Blanchett: I think what the film says, which is interesting, is that the documents were a small part of a story. But they became the focal point of the story and the story itself got lost. I think what’s more interesting is: What about the story? What about any story? You can pull any story apart and say, “That detail is exaggerated,” or, “You missed this detail,” and simply by the sin of omission, you’ve made this fact more prominent, so you’re not telling the 100 percent truth.
If either of you made a great movie, but there’s a truly awful scene in the middle, people will talk about that awful scene. It’s terrible that happened, but isn’t that going to happen if there’s something that wrong included?
Redford: It’s because it’s sound bite culture. We are living in a sound bite culture.
Blanchett: I think the media might focus on it, but this is the thing: It’s who shouts the loudest. He who shouts loudest and longest gets remembered.
Redford: The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Thinking about the trouble you had getting Ordinary People made, what’s changed since then? We hear so much about franchise movies, yet movies like Truth and Carol still get made…
Blanchett: Oh, you’ve seen it?
Oh yes, I loved it. Have you seen Carol?
Redford: No, I haven’t seen it yet.
You really should see Carol if you get a chance.
Blanchett: I think there are many, many more ways to get films funded and distributed now, which is actually very exciting.
Redford: It’s good news.
Blanchett: And Bob was just talking before about the rise of the documentary – as being a place where real investigative journalism kind of happens. So that’s a really exciting form that’s just expanding exponentially. You know, the people who are binge-watching stuff, so in a way, they are attending to it with a greater interest and ferocity than I think they were 10 years ago.
Redford: Yeah, the binge-watching is a result of them not wanting to have sound bite stuff. They want continuity.
You did a superhero movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a superhero movie people really like. Did you want to jump in on that while it was the hot genre?
Blanchett: It’s fun!
Redford: Sure, I was fascinated to be able to play some role in this new world where there’s a lot of green screen stuff going on. For me, doing it, I wanted to play a villain. But I wanted to play a villain who was dark, but persuasively something else. I wanted to play a villain who was really bad. And there was only one villain that I ever remember seeing that I could liken it to that I liked, and that was The Third Man. Because Orson Welles was a villain – a bastard – but he’s an interesting guy and he had an interesting point of view. And I thought, well, this guy at least has a point of view that’s interesting and he can justify it. That makes him really a badass guy, and that’s what appealed to me.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.