“Are you now or have you ever been a liberal?”
This line that has appeared in two films this London Film Festival — the first being Trumbo, a biopic of the avowed leftie screenwriter who helped to bring down the blacklist. The other is, albeit delivered ironically, in Truth, the directorial debut of Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt, which delves into the controversy surrounding 60 Minutes‘ 2004 report on President George W. Bush’s time in the National Guard during the Vietnam War.
Cate Blanchett stars as Mary Mapes, then producer for hard-hitting, investigative news show 60 Minutes. Passionate and astute, when she receives evidence that suggests that strings were pulled to get Bush into the Guard so that he could avoid the draft and that, once there, he quickly went AWOL, she has just five days to verify, fact-check, and generally get the story together — a deadline based on the Dr. Phil and Billy Graham specials the network is currently pushing.
As such, Mapes puts together a crack team consisting of outspoken “hippie” Mike Smith (Topher Grace), the grizzled but affable Colonel Charles (Dennis Quaid), and journalism professor Lucy Scott (a criminally underused Elizabeth Moss). Having succeeded, largely due to the support of legendary newscaster Dan Rather (a genially craggy Robert Redford), their jubilation turns to horror when the story proceeds to fall apart before their eyes.
As the Internet goes to town and the executives turn their backs, with the election looming, Mapes becomes the focus of the world’s outrage. Forced to go on the defensive, the team begins reluctantly impeaching their own sources and sorting through reams of documents for an exonerating instance of font. As an after-the-fact journalism procedural, it’s fairly compelling stuff, even if, given the public outcry, the writing is already on the wall.
Rather than the issue of their mistake — the damning documents, for instance, could easily be faked on a PC — Vanderbilt’s screenplay focuses on the fact that the charges against Bush never went away but were simply swept aside amidst accusations of bias and partisanship. Ironically then, Mapes is brought before a committee to assess the issue of blame; a committee which just so happens to include a former Bush Sr. crony (not to mention an utterly slimy Dermot Mulroney).
The team’s own journalistic failures are more or less glossed over in favor of an indictment of the current state of the news: corporate interests, opinions as fact, etc. It’s a theme that Aaron Sorkin has gone much to explore in recent years and Truth covers much of the same ground as his Newsroom, but with Blanchett’s superb, committed performance — a scene in which she’s forced to beg her abusive father not to talk to the press is devastating — there’s no hardship in that.
For all it’s crusading, though, you may wish there was a scene, just one, where the team take responsibility for their screw-up, a mea culpa that might make the moralizing go down that little bit easier. Given it’s based on Mapes’ own book — full title Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power — it can’t help but feel like the film, while detailing the pillorying they received, is also content to let them off the hook somewhat.
Brian Tyler’s score swells dramatically more than is strictly necessary, and Mandy Walker’s cinematography is as warm and comforting as a sip of single malt, but if you’re willing to pardon some misty-eyed profile shots of Redford, as dignified and commanding as a bald eagle (and with a full head of hair to boot!), you’ll discover a tightly scripted, neatly directed piece of populist entertainment. The truth may be out there; this’ll do till it arrives.