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Film Review: "Truth"

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Robert Redford as Dan Rather

Truth might be seen as the third installment of an informal Robert Redford trilogy of films grappling with American electoral politics and its stormy romance with the news media. This triptych began with 1972’s The Candidate, a satire about a telegenic senatorial contender who manipulates his image to win an election. Then came the 1976 historical drama, All the President’s Men, which solemnly celebrated the Fourth Estate in its early efforts to gather news about the Watergate break-in. Truth represents the melancholy trail’s end of this journey, when money and product-branding have trumped principles in both governance and journalism. It’s based on former 60 Minutes II producer Mary Mapes’ memoir that told how she and CBS news icon Dan Rather lost their jobs over a poorly sourced segment about George W. Bush’s alleged attempt to dodge military service in Vietnam through the Texas Air National Guard. 

The story begins four years after the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the White House to a presidential candidate who had lost the popular vote. By the summer of 2004 that candidate, Bush, seems headed for defeat against John Kerry. At CBS News, Mapes (Cate Blanchett) gets word that during the Vietnam War, the Bush family’s political clout landed W a coveted (and safe) spot in the Texas Guard; soon after, he seems to have become a permanent no-show during Guard flights and was released from service early, so he could attend Harvard Business School. 

Mapes and Rather (Redford), and their team of researchers, are up against a hard deadline: 60 Minutes can’t run the story too close to the election or CBS will be attacked for springing an “October surprise.” The program’s only available slot is in early September – before enough of the explosive story’s fact-checking can be completed to make it airtight. Besides the calendar, Mapes’ obstacles include a lack of solid on-the-record sources and the fact that a sheaf of damning documents are only photocopies. 

Fans of All the President’s Men will recall, here, Jason Robards’ tough-love admonition, as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: “Get some harder information next time.” If only Mapes had worked for Bradlee! For no sooner have she and Rather downed their celebratory scotches than the first debunking attacks come roaring in – first from outraged conservative bloggers, then from CBS’s competitors. Just as the 2000 election hung on a paper chad, so would, in 2004, the 60 Minutes story hang on whether or not the disputed documents were originally created on a modern computer or a 1972 typewriter– specifically, one that could produce Times Roman superscript font.

Like The Candidate and All the President’s Men, writer-director James Vanderbilt’s film crackles with Front Page-like repartee and knowing cynicism. And yet its story doesn’t belong to the age of front pages or newsrooms; instead, Truth’s journalists live in a world dominated by pop sensibilities and bottom-line-minded executives, when deadlines have become hourly, if not instantaneous. It’s hard not to sympathize with Mapes, Rather and their crew, especially since we know John Kerry’s Swift Boat character assassins were given a free pass by the same media that helped topple 60 Minutes II and those who worked on the Bush story. It doesn’t hurt that Vanderbilt’s script skews the narrative so that we’re led to believe no rational person would doubt the authenticity of the documents that ended Mapes’ and Rather’s careers at CBS. 

Still, there’s also an unnecessary conspiratorial tone that occasionally blows into the film like a cold draft, and Bryan Tyler’s soaring music, coupled at the end with adulatory slow-motion close-ups of Rather, sometimes makes us think we’re watching Redford’s baseball character Roy Hobbs in The Natural. In any case, Redford truly immerses himself in his role as Dan Rather – or, perhaps, in Rather’s hair, which here appears to have been the offspring of Ted Koppel’s luminous coiffure and Marv Albert’s wig. To his credit, Redford is completely believable as the old news anchor and never tries to make him a Redford “creation.”

From start to finish, though, Truth is Blanchett’s film, as her troubled character plows through the story with both steely resolve and worrisome vulnerability. Again and again her leonine countenance is etched with righteous disdain, particularly when she faces a corporate inquisition, commissioned by her employers, that makes Hillary Clinton’s recent ordeal seem like a moment in CBS’s old quiz show, What’s My Line? Despite its flaws, Truth is a film that should be seen, as its lessons about professional integrity and political intimidation can only become more important in the current election season.

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