Directed by James Vanderbilt
By Richard Roeper
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by James Vanderbilt, based on the book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power, by Mary Mapes. Running time: 125 minutes. Rated R (for language and a brief nude photo).
It wouldn’t be accurate to say Truth is stranger than fiction because Truth IS a fiction — a dramatization of the infamous and spectacularly flawed 60 Minutes II report in 2004 about George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard.
Having said that, Truth is a strange interpretation of events, in which the visuals and the music sometimes seem to be nudging us in one direction, even as the screenplay and the performances are telling us something quite different.
I can’t recall the brilliant Cate Blanchett ever giving a subpar performance, and she’s certainly never dull or uncertain here — but Blanchett’s work as CBS producer Mary Mapes is big, bigger and BIGGEST.
Given Blanchett is playing the would-be heroine of the story and Truth is based on Mapes’ memoir, it’s hardly a flattering performance. Mapes routinely pops Xanax by day and gargles wine by night, berates colleagues and superiors when they don’t share her near-zealous convictions, and can’t resist lashing out at everyone from her supportive husband to her own lawyer to the CBS-commissioned committee brought in to question her after the 60 Minutes II report unravels.
For years, stories had been circulating about young George W. Bush’s service with the Texas and Alabama National Guards, particularly in the early 1970s, at the height of the Vietnam War.
Truth purports to show us what happened when one of the most esteemed news producers in the business and the most trusted anchor in America teamed up to revisit that story.
Just months before the 2004 presidential election, Mapes meets with her primary source: one Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (fine work by Stacy Keach), who is retired from the military, is in poor health and is an acknowledged John Kerry supporter.
Mapes works her charms on Burkett and his wife, and persuades them to hand over a sheaf of photocopied military memos that would seem to prove young Bush was politically protected — even that he went AWOL for a year.
It’s the smoking gun! Or so Mapes clearly hopes. Now comes the task of verifying every letter of every word in the documents before going to air.
Mapes assembles a colorful cast of intrepid investigators, including retired Lt. Col. Roger Charles (an excellent Dennis Quaid), the steady, hardworking Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss from “Mad Men”) and brash young wild card Mike Smith (Topher Grace).
But like a king riding to the front lines after the battle lines have been drawn and the strategy has been enacted, it’s the legendary Dan Rather who will be the face of this victory if the story becomes the stuff of legend.
Robert Redford plays Dan Rather. I know. Just reading that out loud seems odd — but Redford does a terrific job of capturing Rather’s on-air cadence and his larger-than-life off-air persona. (It does take a while, quite a while, to get over the fact that Redford hung onto his famous blond locks for this performance. Dan Rather as a blond makes no more sense than someone playing Robert Redford as a guy with dark hair.)
Mapes and the team work diligently to confirm the documents — bringing in handwriting experts, working the phones day and night to find another source, debating the merits of the story with higher-ups all the way to CBS News President Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood).
Meanwhile, we get some heavy-handed sidebar melodrama about how Rather has become a father figure to Mapes and how they’ve formed their own little inner circle of trust no one else can penetrate.
Once the story airs, Rather, Mapes et al. are journalistic heroes for the briefest of shining moments — before the walls start crumbling.
Bloggers find fault with the typeface used in the documents, claiming the font is more indicative of a modern word processor than 1970s typewriters. A top source who never confirmed every inch of the story in the first place now says he’s going to refute the report. Mapes’ bosses, scrambling to cover their own careers, are stunned to hear two of the four handwriting experts who studied the documents had questions about the veracity of the signatures.
It’s during the investigation into the investigation that Truth is filled with mixed messages. The music swells to heroic crescendos, and Mapes and Rather are depicted as fallen champions for justice — but we’ve just been given a world of evidence for why the story never should have run. Smith delivers a passionate, unhinged rant about a government-media conspiracy to cover up the truth about Bush — without seeming to realize he was just part of an investigative effort in which myriad facts were ignored so the story would fit a pre-conceived narrative.
As is the case with crusading-journalist movies such as All the President’s Men (and Spotlight), we know the outcome of this investigative procedural before the lights dim in the theater. And, yes, Mapes was a great producer and Rather was a lion of a reporter and anchor.
But if they had been assigned to investigate their own work on the Bush story and delivered truthful findings, I believe they would have given themselves failing marks.
MTRCB rating: PG