When freelance journalist Mike Smith (Topher Grace) asks CBS news anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) why he went into journalism, Rather tells him it was because of curiosity. “That’s all?” asks Smith. “That’s everything,” responds Rather.
Being curious and asking questions is what the media does, or should do, in order to get to what is really behind the official story, and it’s that ground between the press and the power that lies behind the new political drama Truth from director James Vanderbilt. The curiosity of the press is that buffer between what the public should really know and what the people in power might or might not reveal. If the right questions are never asked then those in power will tells us anything they want. “You stop asking questions and that’s when the American people lose,” Rather explains.
The questions asked in Truth revolve around the real-life story of the Killian Documents. The late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian was George W. Bush’s commanding officer in the Texas Army National Guard and it was he who was purportedly behind a set of documents critical of Bush’s service.
CBS News producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) receives copies of those damming documents and finds there’s a story, an important one that needs to be followed. If what the documents say turns out to be true, then President Bush, now seeking re-election, used possible family connections to avoid physicals and did what was needed to evade Vietnam. Unaccounted for times and dates on the papers even suggest that Bush was possibly AWOL for a period and that he never completed any of his duties as an officer. Yet nothing was done. The CBS producer was initially following a story connecting Bush to the bin Laden family, but it fizzled. Then the Killian documents came her way, and the curiosity and the questions of the press followed.
What began as a seemingly solid piece of journalism with all the right questions asked turned into a nightmare for producer Mapes and anchor Rather. The problem was the proven authenticity of the copied papers – the originals are said to be burned by Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) after he faxed them to CBS. As portrayed in the film, Burkett and his wife are hesitant to be drawn into anything. Mrs. Burkett (Noni Hazlehurst, memorable in two good scenes) explains with trepidation that an earlier attempt to bring those documents to light resulted in a mysterious car chase; echoing the conspiracy theory whistle-blower moment in The China Syndrome, the Burketts were almost driven off the road. “Why shouldn’t I show the documents to the newspapers?” Burkett asks. “Because no one reads the newspapers,” Mapes replies.
The papers were written in 1973 on a typewriter, yet the spacing of the words, particularly the style with which a date is presented, suggests those papers were written with Microsoft Word from a program whose default settings were 2004. And it’s Mapes, Rather and the team behind the 60 Minutes Wednesday segment that suffer under a deluge of attacks from the right-wing radio media, Internet bloggers and a never-ending series of critical on-line forums.
We know the outcome, and the film spells out the events, the resignations and the firings, that followed. Even if you recall everything as it happened and you remember how other media outlets pursued not the story of the president’s possible military evasions but focused on the CBS scandal, the film fascinates.
The running time may stretch a little over two hours but there’s hardly a moment that doesn’t leave you breathless. There’s a continual desire to keep wanting to know more that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout like the most riveting aspects of a thriller. In a tremendous speech afforded Mapes in front of a condemning committee, her lawyer by her side, she points out that even if those papers were really forged – something that in the end can neither be proved nor thoroughly disproved – whoever wrote them had to have had inside knowledge to every detail of George W. Bush’s service and knew the man’s schedule. But what has now happened is that the message of evasion is buried under trivialities to the point where the original position is forgotten.
Given its title, Truth won’t seem as impartial as it should. To journalists of the electronic media, both the reality and the difficulty of dotting all i’s and crossing all t’s before a story is aired is thoroughly and successfully explored. But it leans towards Mary Mapes and the team at CBS and this may well have those same critics who attacked the original report attacking the film. The script is based on Mapes’ own book, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power. Ironically, while it presents its employees in a positive light, CBS itself doesn’t come off quite so well. That’s probably why it has distanced itself from the film, citing too many distortions. It has reportedly even banned the film’s TV commercials. Producer Brad Fischer is on record as not being surprised, particularly when the film suggests that CBS corporate owner Viacom wanted a pullback due to an association at the time with the Bush administration.
There’s never a moment when you don’t see Robert Redford on the screen rather than Dan Rather, but that has less to do with performance and more with superstar baggage. There are looks and mannerisms that nicely illustrate Rather, and occasionally, with the clip of a phrase or the conclusion of a short sentence, you can actually hear Rather talking.
Cate Blanchett has an easier time of convincing as Marty Mapes. Even though she looks and sounds nothing like the real woman, Blanchett is a force, often running on auxiliary power when something needs to be done, and nothing else, including family, can get in the way. It’s a familiar character portrayal. Remember Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, Faye Dunaway in Network and to a degree, Rene Russo in Nightcrawler? But it’s real. The industry breeds people of that nature. If radio and television didn’t exist, there would be nowhere for a person like Mapes and her drive to exist.
With good support from Topher Grace as the freelancer, Dennis Quaid as Colonel Roger Charles, Stacy Keach and particularly Bruce Greenwood exuding angry authority as Andrew Heyward, Truth is intelligent and impressive. It’s not entirely conclusive. We learn of the fallout, but the truth? That’s what we as an audience need to find out. And that can only be done with curiosity and the need to keep asking questions, because if we don’t, we lose.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 125 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)