In 2004, a 60 Minutes segment questioning then-President George W. Bush’s spotty record of service in the Texas Air National Guard led to a controversy that ended the career of journalistic titan Dan Rather and veteran producer Mary Mapes. This marked a transition from heavily considered and curated network news stories to increased commercialization and a greater focus on the Internet as the voice of the people.
In many ways, Rathergate could be considered the death knell of traditional journalism. And boy, will Truth not shut up for a minute about it.
There’s a lot of charm to Truth, if you look for it: Director James Vanderbilt (in his directorial debut) cut his teeth as a screenwriter with 2007’s expert serial killer procedural Zodiac, bringing much of that meticulousness to the first act. The first hour of Truth follows Mapes and Rather’s ragtag team of disparate journalists eagerly sinking into every single scrap of paper, every rumor, every telephone call from a source. The team is assembled like one in a heist film, complete with the prerequisite montage, lending a sense of giddy excitement to the proceedings (that is, if you don’t already realize that it’s going to blow up in their faces).
However, it’s in the film’s second half that the energy and nuance drains inexorably from Vanderbilt’s screenplay. Zippy back-and-forths from the winning team of journalists (including Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and a nearly-mute Elizabeth Moss) give way to ponderous complaints about Internet bloggers, cowardly executives, and the scrutiny of the American public. Mapes and Rather mope over the phone about how news is all about money now, and everyone’s watching Survivor: Vanuatu instead of something important.
This preachiness reaches peak Vanderbilt late in the film, when Grace launches into a cringing tirade against a CBS executive on the eve of his ousting. With all he showiness of a young actor desperately trying to keep up with the likes of Robert Redford, Grace rattles off Beales-ian talking points about CBS’ vested interest in keeping the story quiet, to which the executive snidely responds, “It’s not that you guys fucked up a story – it’s a conspiracy, right?” Despite hanging this lantern on our heroes’ didacticism, the rest of the film clearly sides with him, Mapes and the Important Things they have to say.
Speaking of Mapes, one of the few saving graces of the film is Cate Blanchett’s confident, assured and gripping central performance. In script with this many on-the-nose speeches, Blanchett’s ability to match Vanderbilt’s spit and vinegar in each and every one of them makes them at least slightly more palatable. Blanchett goes full Blue Jasmine in her portrayal of Mapes, all eagle-eyed stares and reptilian pushiness. Unlike Jasmine, however, Mapes is crippled with an unfortunate backstory about her abusive father, which (as in so many movies like this) is meant to explain her hardcore personality.
Nonetheless, one of Truth’s most effective acting moments is Mapes’ pitiful “Daddy, stop” to her father over the phone, a mewling appeal to his domination of her to get him to stop slandering her on Fox News. Blanchett’s complete and utter betrayal of her hardened shell is immediately gripping in the moment, even as the subplot threatens to destroy her character. Don’t worry, though; Vanderbilt gives her plenty of pontificating speeches in front of the Investigative Panel of Australian Character Actors to show off her signature brio.
In a simplistic film of bafflingly simple decisions, perhaps the most curious is Redford’s Dan Rather. Don’t get me wrong, Redford’s a great actor, but his performance as Rather harkens back more to his Captain America: The Winter Soldier villain than the legendary newsman. (Perhaps instead of ‘courage,’ Rather’s catchphrase should have been “Hail Hydra”?) With no attempt made to affect Rather’s signature voice or even his basic appearance, Redford seems like stunt casting at its most transparent.
Truth is a by-the-numbers biopic that serves as a blunt, inelegant hagiography of old-school journalism, streamlining facts in order to make its protagonists seem like perfect angels of justice. Our heroes cry out for the right to “ask the question,” but Vanderbilt and crew only seem to beg it. For a film about the wrongheadedness of focusing on details over the point of a story, Truth ends up demonstrating that having a point is not enough.