One of the paradoxes of journalism is that it attracts left-leaning thinkers, but it doesn’t allow them to stay that way. “True” journalists will convince themselves, or at least tell other people, that they have no political leanings to speak of, and possibly even that they never did. They sometimes won’t even vote – in countries where voting is not compulsory, that is – for fear of compromising the very impartiality necessary to do their jobs. Their journalistic integrity takes the place both of a political party, and in some cases, even a religion.
The failing of 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes was that she didn’t recognise when she started going down that slippery slope toward bias – a bias that never actually disappeared in the first place, if we’re being honest. The failing of Truth, James Vanderbilt’s movie about Mapes, is that it still considers her a paragon of journalistic nobility, even as it presents convincing evidence her judgement was clouded by political agendas while reporting a story she hoped would prevent George W. Bush from securing a second term as U.S. president.
It’s 2004, and Democratic senator John Kerry is the last hope to keep the president known as W from reelection. Except Kerry has just been severely damaged by reports from veterans who served alongside him in Vietnam, who accuse him of fabricating various honours and citations that decorated his service. Somewhat independently of that, a producer of the CBS TV news show 60 Minutes (Cate Blanchett) has been pursuing leads that seem to give proof that Bush himself went AWOL during his post with the Texas Air National Guard – a pseudo-military outlet that was considered a cushy alternative to Vietnam, if someone with the right influence could grease the right palms to get you in.
A whistleblower who prefers to remain anonymous has approached 60 Minutes with memoranda written by Bush’s commanding officer from that time, which advises that the future president cannot be properly assessed because he’s nowhere to be found. Eager to break the story before anyone else does, Mary Mapes gets the network’s stalwart news anchor, Dan Rather (Robert Redford), on board as the public face of CBS and the reporter of record on the story. Unfortunately, the chain of custody of these memoranda is not entirely clear, nor has their status as true documents been satisfactorily validated. With a deadline for the broadcast approaching, Mary and her team must make some quick decisions on how to proceed, prompting mistakes that could damage the credibility of the entire network.
The title Truth refers most explicitly to that whole question of whether the ends justify the means. In other words, if the result of rigorous reporting is a true revelation about a person, does tainted evidence make that revelation any less true? If you’ve ever tried that same thing in a court of law, you know the answer is “Absolutely, yes it does.” And this is where we see the first signs of the filmmakers’ blind love for the crusaders on Mapes’ team, not to mention their willingness to readily forgive basic oversights in the most bedrock fundaments of reporting.
The title heavily suggests that truth is what these reporters are crusading for, and by extension, what Bush and his cronies are trying to shroud. But it’s legitimate to question whether Mapes is actually seeking truth, or just her version of it. In a conversation between two other members of her team, played by Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace, Quaid tells Grace that Mary was actually working on this story back in 2000, when Bush was originally running for president. She never finished it because her mother died. He also says that if the evidence against Bush had become public then, it almost certainly would have swung that historically close race in Al Gore’s direction. The fact that she’s resumed work on the story not after a six-month grieving period, but rather when Bush’s public image is being scrutinised again in preparation for another election, should really be all anyone needs to know about what’s driving Mapes to report this story. If she were merely telling a story that the public needed to know, the timing to report it would be “as soon as you’re able,” not “at the moment it can cause the most damage.”
Yet the movie does not seem to recognise that this is what Mapes is doing, probably blinded by the fact that her career has otherwise been marked by rock-solid, award-winning reportage. The score is a dead giveaway to how the movie values what Mapes is up to. When the report airs on 60 Minutes, the music weirdly takes on the ethereal tones of the kind of Celtic score you’re more likely to hear at the end of Braveheart or a Lord of the Rings movie than in a movie about modern-day journalism. Then at other points, when characters are talking about their passion for their righteous duty, the plucky tones of a more straightforward inspirational orchestral score fill the soundtrack. One wonders if Vanderbilt mightn’t have preferred to release Truth when he himself could more directly influence the outcome of an election.
It’s a workmanlike effort from Vanderbilt, lacking entirely in interesting uses of the camera or other evidence of artistic intention. In fact, if not for the pedigree of the cast, this film that thinks it’s so consequential would likely be a mere cinematic footnote. Blanchett has come with a full box of tools, even if you wish she were using them on a better script, but Redford gives a curiously detached performance as the legendary newsman Dan Rather, spouting cheery nuggets of wisdom without showing an emotional reaction to the scandal that’s ensnared him.
Truth is sure to become much more of a footnote when Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight, a likely Best Picture frontrunner, opens next month, and looks into how a team of newspaper reports unveiled systemic sexual abuses of children by Catholic priests in the Boston area. The reporters in that case undoubtedly had a more rewarding outcome to their reporting, but they also came by it more honestly.