TRUTH. Starring: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elizabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid. Directed by James Vanderbilt. Rated M (Coarse language). 125 min.
This is an excellent film about a CBS 60 Minutes Report in 2004 that investigated the military service background of President George W. Bush. The Report aroused fierce criticism that cost the careers in CBS of newsroom anchorman, Dan Rather, and his television news producer, Mary Mapes. The film is based on Mapes' memoir entitled "Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power", which was published in 2005.
The events in question (known as "Rathergate") took place just prior to the 2004 Presidential election in which President George Bush was seeking another term of office. Controversy raged about whether he received preferential treatment by officials of the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s, and whether he was protected by his father's political influence. The movie has a documentary feel about it, but it is essentially a commentary on political journalism and the responsibility of journalists to defend the truth of questions they choose to raise.
The complexity of events was highlighted when a number of the supporting documents associated with the CBS Report were judged to be fraudulent. Mapes made the counterclaim that argument about some documents being fake conveniently discredited further investigation of Bush's military record. The film raises the question of wether the errors made were a betrayal of trust, or whether Mapes engaged in bad journalistic practice. The movie also raises the provocative issue of what were the real motives behind CBS's reaction to the criticisms that were being levelled against it.
Cate Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, who was also a close friend of Dan Rather (Robert Redford). They understood and trusted each other. With two television awards and time in jail behind her, Mapes claimed she found evidence that a sitting President was "Away Without Leave" from the US National Guard during the war in Vietnam. When the story broke on CBS, all hell broke loose, especially when it was revealed that part of the evidence she collected could have been forged.
The film is a didactic, engrossing, and very detailed treatment of politically charged events, and it highlights a range of pertinent moral issues forcibly and effectively. The film genuinely broadens contemporary debate about the independence of journalistic reporting, and journalistic freedom.
Vanderbilt's direction of the film is controlled and assured and the film raises many issues: What is a journalist's obligation to pursue a significant political story when it is based partially on facts that can't be proved to be correct? Did the CBS do all that was necessary to counter the attack on its credibility, or did it (as Mapes claims), pull out prematurely when the going got tough? Is this a movie about bad journalism, or is it a tale about what not to do next time around? Most importantly, when does it matter that part of the detail is false, when the overall gist might still be true - and, if that is the case, when is it time to push on forward, or pull back?
The film is a riveting account of how the CBS Report came to be challenged. Cate Blanchett plays Mary Mapes with fierce intensity, and her acting is superb. She argues to her production team (Dennis Quaid, Elizabeth Moss, and Topher Grace) that she is right and they show complete confidence in her. The movie suggests that she is an embattled reporter with attitudes and practices that are against the beliefs and practices of others, and it builds up strong tension in the development of its detail. The movie's strength is that it faces front-on the error that was made. Its weakness is that it is fails to fully explore the ethics of proper journalistic practice.
This is a provocative and powerful film about the search for truth and the possible biases in political reporting and journalistic practices. It intentionally does not answer the multiple questions that it raises. The movie's treatment of Rathergate could be one-sided, but it may not be. Mapes' case was never finally disproved, and we don't know what that now means. Most importantly, the movie makes us think much more reflectively and intelligently than we did before about what "truth" is.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released December 3rd., 2015