Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: James Vanderbilt
Stars: Andrew McFarlane, Bruce Greenwood, Cate Blanchett, David Lyons,Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, John Benjamin Hickey, Martin Sacks, Nicholas Hope, Rachael Blake,Robert Redford, Toni French, Topher Grace
I don’t typically watch the news anymore. If I do it is only because it’s on in the background at a restaurant or friends house. I don’t even have cable. I get my news updates and read the latest stories on the internet. Naturally, that means Truth makes me feel like a horrible individual. This is the case because Truth deals in the purity of investigative journalism, the integrity it was once synonymous with and the standards that every great reporter would ideally hold themselves to. Of course, the truth is also relative and in his directorial debut James Vanderbilt (who has written screenplays such as Zodiac and White House Down) explores this idea by telling the behind-the-scenes story of the 2004 60 Minutes investigation of then-President George W. Bush’s military service in the Texas Air National Guard. This investigation, led by producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), comes under heavy scrutiny concerning the legitimacy of a handful of documents that question the conduct and participation of Bush while in the National Guard. Vanderbilt ultimately plays this safe and goes with a rather trusted formula and conventional approach a la any newsroom drama you’ve ever seen, but because the story in and of itself is so interesting (as is also typically the case) and given the way the film deals with the subsequent firestorm of criticisms and accusations that cost anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and Mapes their careers it more than sustains itself and delivers a solid if not exceptional venture.
Beginning with the safe bet of having Mapes enter an office to conduct a meeting with someone who is clearly very important and or powerful due to the quality of his suit and the level he works on the film recounts the story through Mapes ‘perspective by having her relay it to who we come to find out is her lawyer (Andrew McFarlane). The movie naturally violates this rule a bit given there is no way Mapes could have known all of the discussions that take place in the movie, but we get the picture and we go with it. After closing out a successful story, Mapes is briefed by her new boss, Josh Howard (David Lyons), and is asked to provide any leads for the upcoming season of 60 Minutes. Having received an email that puts her on the trail of the aforementioned documents that would paint Bush as Awol during a large period of his service in the seventies Mapes pitches the idea with the intent of following through on this story that she originally began investigating four years earlier. Rounding up a team that includes Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), Journalism professor Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) and freelancer Mike Smith (Topher Grace) Mapes jumps on the trail of her story and begins an investigation that has to be completed in a matter of days when the only available air date is rearranged because of Dr. Phil. Because of this rush it is easy to see how so much surrounding this story could come back to bite our protagonist in the ass, but the film is firm in it’s perspective that the documents Bush supporters find issue with are not the point of the story and that the public, per usual, is made to get wrapped up in the details and not the broader picture.
While Truth will no doubt come to be known for the film in which Redford portrays Dan Rather this is clearly Mapes’ film and therefore Blanchett’s to own. The superb actress does well to display her domineering presence early as it reign’s over her assembled team with determination and vigor. Where the film really shines though is in the entertaining ensemble it has compiled that allows Blanchett’s performance to become even more effective. It is the chemistry between the group that Mapes puts together that gives the film an energy and excitement that comes with digging into a story, following leads and every now and then stumbling upon something significant. Much of the more “fun and entertaining” aspects come from the camaraderie between Quaid and Grace (In Good Company 2, anyone?) as their odd couple relationship elicits the lighter side of the film while keeping the focus on the facts and providing the necessary insight and context to make this story as compelling as it is conveyed to be. It’s something of a shame that Elisabeth Moss is underused and never feels as much a part of the team considering Quaid and Grace pair up while Mapes more or less sticks close to Rather. In terms of Redford’s performance, he is more an intermittent presence, an extended cameo if you will that is present because he’s the face of the story and because his paternal relationship with Mapes serves as a basis to address Mapes’ actual father and the motivation behind her drive. While “daddy issues” may sound a bit hackneyed it is potent in this context as Vanderbilt layers in the necessary elements at the right times in the script allowing for this plot strand to reach a breaking point providing a moment for Blanchett to really deliver.
As the film comes to it’s third act and it’s revealed our listener is Mapes’ lawyer for the purposes of an upcoming internal investigation that the President of the CBS news division, Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood), authorized the film really begins to let it’s agenda show. Truth still gives the relativity of the titular word it’s due, but it is clearly labeled as the enemy. This positioning is ultimately unsurprising though and what is more important is that Mapes’ interview with a board of intimidating, intelligent lawyers (no matter how biased they’re made to look) is that it presents how easily oppositions can be swayed in either direction given how someone is coming at a situation. Through this delegation of opinions and the presentation of the facts less as facts themselves, but as actions that can be twisted and turned in any fashion Truth gets across it’s main idea that the world is too big to have become so small. “There is no public trust in the news anymore,” Rather tells Mapes at one point. Despite the market being saturated and every news station preaching little more than the agenda of their parent company one has to wonder how bad it is for society to have so many voices shouting their opinions through “infotainment” and make you question if a single voice like Rather’s, that claimed to present the basic facts and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions, would even still work. Was this ever really true? Was the news ever that pure? These aren’t new things to wonder, but Truth does a fine job of harping on them and getting into the small details that make the world turn and a journalists career live or die. For that, it’s both tremendously involving and entertaining.