When I was in college, I took a couple of classes on the history and theory of journalistic and broadcast media in America. They were pretty insightful, if sometimes self-mythologizing, and they hit a lot of beats about the importance and sanctity of news reporting and fearless investigation in this country. All The President’s Men was a core text, as was Good Night and Good Luck. Before Truth was even halfway over, I knew it was destined to be part of these curriculums. And it deserves to be there, except for when it doesn’t.
Truth, based on the memoir of former 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes, follows the investigation, reporting, and fallout of the Killian documents and then-President George W. Bush’s alleged failure to meet standards as a National Guard pilot during the 1970s. The questionable validity of the core documents in the report and CBS’s response to the controversy eventually cost Mapes (Cate Blanchett) her job, and were a factor in Dan Rather (Robert Redford) retiring from TV news. The film details Mapes’s team, Mike Smith (Topher Grace), Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), as they attempt to bolster their story amid a firestorm of coverage and pressure from within CBS.
Truth is an interesting inversion of the usual “true journalism” film paradigm, in that rather than the plucky reporters slowly discovering and controlling more and more of the narrative, it’s taken away from them in increasingly devastating swaths. The first act of the movie, in which they’re pulling together the program and riding high off of the clout they got for breaking Abu Ghraib, is pretty light and brisk, but even then there’s a sense of dread as we come to the inevitable turn. James Vanderbilt’s direction is deft and comparatively subtle and occasionally brings a level of nuance to the film that’s lost in the script. It looks the way you expect this sort of story to look, with a lot of glass surfaces in conference rooms and harried, angry phone calls. In terms of cinematography, at least, it’s grounded and engaging. Events unfold at a reasonable pace, and while some of the characters tend to moralize, there’s the tension and friction of real human drama in most of the interactions.
It’s also Blanchett’s show. It probably says more about the movies that I tend to see than it does about her overall career, but it was a breath of fresh air to see her as a lead in something that in’t genre work, a period piece, or drenched in self-conscious artistically framed angles. She’s at her most grounded and vulnerable as Mapes, communicating the immense stress and anger she feels in little intonations and movements and expressions, rather than broad explosions. Her interactions with friends, family, and bosses feel lived-in. Redford takes a different approach to his portrayal of Dan Rather, performing him more frequently as the idea of Dan Rather—one of the fathers of broadcast news and the paradigm of integrity and kindness on television—than as the man himself. It’s a good supporting performance that allows him to fade as needed (it’s Mapes’s story, not his), and the few moments when he does let his guard down and shows pain or irritation and strong, but it’s a bit underwhelming on the whole. The rest of the ensemble shines, from Grace as a snarky hotshot, to the bit players, like Bruce Greenwood as CBS boss Andrew Heyward, and Stacey Keach as unreliable but well-meaning source Bill Burkett. The notable weak spot is Elisabeth Moss, but only because the script saddles her with mostly expository dialogue and not much arc of her own.
The film’s major flaw, if you can call it that, is that it reduces the events of the Killian documents down to two choices: either the staff of 60 Minutes knew that the documents could have been forged and pressed on anyway, eager to sway the 2004 election, or they were victims of circumstance, targeted and made examples of by their corporate overseers in collusion with the Bush administration. This kind of reduction is not unexpected; like I said earlier, it’s Mapes’s story, with her as the hero. And when Grace’s character Smith makes an impassioned, frantic speech on the newsroom floor about how tied up Viacom is with the politicians who control Washington, I don’t really doubt it at all. But Truth doesn’t allow for a compromise; that while there was no ill intent in their program, the reporters and producers rushed to air without making sure due diligence was taken in their investigation, and committed a series of errors grave enough to warrant the loss of people’s jobs. Dermot Mulroney has a great turn in the third act of the film as the sneering, acerbic head of an independent investigation panel, but the sequence is so rendered down to good vs. evil that it distracts from him, and from a strong, climactic monologue by Blanchett. I’m not trying to cast judgment on any of the real people involved here, at all. But since the film itself is so strong in terms of performances and possessed of such an insistent message about fearless journalism, I think it’s important to provide a grain of salt and ask some questions.
But overall, I do think Truth has earned its place in the pantheon of films about the nobility of American reporting. It’s impossible to eliminate bias, and important to be aware of it. But the narrative Vanderbilt has constructed out of these events, that investigative reporting is crucial, no matter where it leads and no matter what it costs, is a sound one. It’s a movie that’s been on my mind since I’ve seen it, which is not something a lot of theatrical releases this year can claim. Despite its flaws, Truth is a solid outing, and makes a fine addition to the “true journalism” canon.
Truth is now playing.