Tuesday, November 3, 2015

In Theaters: TRUTH (2015)

(US/Australia - 2015)

Written and directed by James Vanderbilt. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, Dermot Mulroney, John Benjamin Hickey, David Lyons, Rachael Blake, Andrew McFarlane, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Natalie Saleeba, Noni Hazelhurst, Nicholas Hope, Philip Quast. (R, 125 mins)

This chronicle of the 2004 events that led to the dismissal of 60 MINUTES II producer Mary Mapes and the end of Dan Rather's tenure at CBS suffers from being based on Mapes' own memoir. As a result, it constantly straddles the fine line between dramatization and Mapes hagiography. Writer/director James Vanderbilt's intent seems to be to make Mapes (played here by Cate Blanchett) a martyr for the dying profession of journalism, when it was primarily corner-cutting, sloppy fact-checking, and a rush to get on the air that undermined the explosiveness of the story itself. And whether it's her past accomplishments and her reputation as a tough ballbuster (she also broke the Abu Ghraib story), her upbringing at the hands of an abusive father, her need to challenge bullying power structures, or allowing herself to be duped for the sake of a big story, Vanderbilt seems to hold everyone but Mapes accountable for Mapes' questionable judgment.

Mapes was fired for the bungled report, whereas Rather (Robert Redford) was granted the dignity of resigning on his own terms. With the Swift Boat smear campaign of John Kerry in full force as he's in a dead heat with incumbent George W. Bush in the run up to the 2004 presidential election, Mapes gets word that retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) has documents that show Bush got special treatment to get into the National Guard and went AWOL and never reported for duty when stationed in Alabama in 1973. Burkett won't reveal his sources, and while Mapes and her team--freelance journalist Michael Smith (Topher Grace), researcher Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), and retired Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid)--follow the paper trail and assemble the story, they're unable to get complete confirmation that Burkett's photocopied documents are authentic. Two of four experts deem them authentic enough, and with Rather onboard, they run with it, putting the entire piece together in just five days in early October 2004 since 60 MINUTES II will be off the air until after the election to clear space for a Billy Graham crusade and a prime-time Dr. Phil special. Almost immediately after the report airs, discrepancies are brought to their attention and sources start recanting their original statements: Burkett lied about how he got the documents, the Times New Roman font in the documents is 100% consistent to how it looks when typed out on a computer, and the "th" superscript was very uncommon on typewriters of 1973. Additionally, one of the brass prominently mentioned in the documents wasn't even in a position of authority on the base in Alabama at the time the documents were supposedly written.

Eventually, Rather had to issue an on-air apology for what was referred to as "Memogate" and "Rathergate," and it brought his long and iconic run at CBS to an end. It was Mapes whose career took the biggest hit, and Vanderbilt makes sure we all realize it. Blanchett is one of our great actresses, but her Mapes is some pretty blatant Oscar-baiting. She's a little BLUE JASMINE and a little Faye Dunaway as she flips her hair and guzzles chardonnay and pops Xanax (the film also makes an effort to introduce her via a knitting pastime, which she's never seen doing again), and it's her against the world with the future of journalism at stake, but she's got father figure Rather to offer sage advice. Even the other characters marvel at her, as when Charles tells Smith that Mapes wanted to pursue Bush's alleged Guard misconduct in 2000, but her mother died and she dropped the story. "If her mother hadn't died...Al Gore would be the president," Quaid is forced to say with a straight face. The supporting characters, including Mapes' journalist husband Mark Wrolstad (John Benjamin Hickey), have precious little to do and exist only to prop up Mapes and repeatedly tell her some variation of "You're doing the right thing" or to break some bad news (you could make a drinking game out of how many times Quaid, Grace, or Moss enter a scene and say "It gets worse..."), or to passionately exclaim "This is what we do!" when she's feeling pangs of self-doubt. Journalism 101 turns to Cliche 101 throughout, right down to some truly terrible exposition when Grace's Smith is introduced to the rest of the team, and they all immediately do one of those LAW & ORDER: SVU info drops where everyone finishes everyone else's sentence as the camera zings from person to person, with Smith somehow completely up to speed on an investigation he's been a part of for about 30 seconds.

Dan Rather and Mary Mapes visiting the
set of TRUTH during filming. 
The presence of Redford is both the film's strongest aspect and its biggest distraction. Like Christopher Plummer's interpretation of 60 MINUTES' Mike Wallace in Michael Mann's THE INSIDER (1999), Redford wisely makes no attempt to look or sound like Rather, instead opting to nail down his speech patterns and his general persona. A legend portraying a legend, Redford walks off with every scene he's in, but seeing him is a constant reminder of his Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman's Carl Bernstein in 1976's ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, the gold standard of the admittedly limited "investigative reporters bringing down a President" subgenre. TRUTH pales in comparison to that masterpiece, and it's indicative of just how much David Fincher had to do with the greatness of 2007's ZODIAC--scripted by Vanderbilt and with a major ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN influence in its structure and narrative. TRUTH marks Vanderbilt's debut as a director, but ZODIAC stands out as the anomaly among his screenwriting credits, which are littered with fun-but-lunkheaded fare like THE RUNDOWN (2003), THE LOSERS (2010) and WHITE HOUSE DOWN (2013). TRUTH has a powderkeg of a story at its core, but loses itself by constantly presenting Mapes as the crucified savior of real TV news reporting, the last bastion of integrity sacrificed at the altar of corporate business interests, with even Rather lamenting the death of the format once they're all forced out. Regardless of the truth--Bush's Guard record was quite dubious--Mapes, Rather, and their team dropped the ball and failed to get all their ducks in a row, which the film admits but stresses "that's not what it's about," a notion that only gave substance to the right-wing blogosphere's claim that the bombshell report was politically motivated. It is what it's about, and in making the presentation of the whole unfortunate saga so one-sided and myopic, Vanderbilt ends up making the same mistakes as his protagonists.

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