Cate Blanchett as 60 Minutes II producer Mary Mapes and Robert Redford as Mapes’ boss, mentor, and too-indulgent surrogate dad, Dan Rather in Truth, a movie that has more in common with a certain workplace sitcom than with great films about real-life journalists taking on a big story.
Every other year or so, CBS news should gather all its reporters, producers, and editors together to show them a movie double-feature.
Good Night, and Good Luck and Truth.
The point would be a humbling lesson in institutional history:
"This is how we started, and this is what we sank to: We betrayed Ed Murrow's legacy in order to curry favor with a President who turned out to be a mendacious incompetent whose henchmen were using McCarthyite tactics to cower the press and shut down dissent so they could continue a disastrous war that had no purpose and no justification and which they'd started by lying to the American people and exploiting their fear of another 9/11."
Problem here is that one of the movies is a lot better than the other.
Truth is emotionally engaging and features an excellent cast brilliantly led by Cate Blanchett who delivers a performance that might have earned her an Oscar nomination if she wasn't almost certainly going to nominated for her role in Carol. But Truth might have been a more compelling film if it had included that lesson above more explicitly.
Instead, it stops short, leaving it to be inferred, while focusing on its main character’s professional martyrdom in the cause of her own integrity as a journalist.
Good Night, and Good Luck is about how one of the greatest TV journalists of all time stood up for the country against a life-destroying demagogue who was doing his best to tear apart the nation in order to maintain his own worthless political career.
Truth is about how one plucky journalist tried to stand up for herself against an all too typical act of corporate weaseling in the quest for profit.
But it happened because of something else much larger that was going on around her at the time.
The War in Iraq isn’t entirely left out of Truth, but it’s taken as such a given that it’s barely mentioned and really only shows up in the background as an issue in the 2004 Presidential campaign.
But it wasn’t an issue. It was the issue. The reason the story of Bush’s National Guard days mattered was that Bush was running for re-election as our War President. After 9/11, his whole Presidency was based on the idea that he was some kind of hero-king. That’s what the Mission Accomplished stunt was designed to do, sell that idea. And the thing that made it salable was that Bush had been a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War.
Except that he wasn’t.
He was a pilot training program washout who’d joined the Guard in the first place to avoid being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam.
In short, he was a despicable fraud, and he made himself even more despicable by allowing his minions to orchestrate the smearing of his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, who had avoided the draft by enlisting in the Navy and going voluntarily to fight in Vietnam where he’d been wounded in action.
To recap, I hope you don’t mind if I crib from Wikipedia, with interpolations:
60 Minutes II [a weekday counterpart to the Sunday edition of 60 Minutes and intended to give evening news anchor Dan Rather more opportunities to do what he liked to do best, investigate and report stories himself] ran into controversy in September 2004 when the program staff received a set of documents which alleged that, while in the service of the Texas Air National Guard,United States President George W. Bush was declared unfit for duty and suspended from service. [They also appeared to show that Bush’s father’s friends used their influence to protect him from further disciplinary action.] On September 8, 2004, in the middle of the 2004 Presidential election, Dan Rather went on the air on 60 Minutes II with the documents. The authenticity of these documents was quickly called into question by experts and critics. [Right Wing bloggers led the attack. But CBS’ competitors quickly joined in.]…
For about two weeks, Rather and his team stood by the story, but CBS later announced it could not vouch for the authenticity of the memos. The network stated that using the memos was a "mistake" and Rather apologized for the incident. Their source, former Texas Army National Guard officer Bill Burkett, had misled a CBS producer about the source of the documents. The senior producer on the story, Mary Mapes, was fired, and three other producers involved in the story were asked to resign. It is often implied[by whom?] that Rather's subsequent retirement was tied to this incident. [Implied? I think it’s pretty well universally agreed on. At any rate, those Right Wing bloggers and many conservative pundits still congratulate themselves on their role in getting Rather essentially fired.]
The campaign was still close. Kerry even appeared to be on his way to victory. Bush’s continuation in office as the War President was at stake. Which meant that what was also at stake was the continuation of the war or at least its continuation as it was being ineptly and corruptly and---thanks to “enhanced interrogation”---immorally prosecuted.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, we now know that what was also at stake was the fate of New Orleans and the entire nation’s economy.
By leaving all that for us to remember, director James Vanderbilt, who also wrote the screenplay fails to make it a dramatic fact of his movie.
For long stretches, dramatically, what seems most at stake are Mary Mapes’ career and her personal happiness.
Good as she is as Mapes, Cate Blanchett can’t make us care about Mapes enough for her problems to amount to a big enough hill of beans to carry the movie.
And Blanchett is good.
Tousled, outwardly relaxed but cheerfully humming with pent up energy, eyes wide open as she takes it all in, a good journalist on the watch but letting most of it register with only the wryest of smiles or most fleeting of frowns, calm and level-headed but still managing to convey whatever she’s feeling---anger, anxiety, dismay, joy, despair---Blanchett’s Mapes is the best kind of boss, someone you want to work hard for because she’s someone you want to work with.
We can see why the determinedly anti-social, reflexively irritating, compulsively self-sabotaging freelancer Mike Smith (Topher Grace) would settle down under her command and do his damnedest for her.
And we can see why the legendary Dan Rather (Robert Redford) would trust her, rely on her, and defer to her to the point of taking instructions from her.
And yet we can see, when the pressure starts to get to her and cracks appear in her seemingly unbreakable calm and personal demons start flying out, that those demons have been there and at work from within all along, sawing at the bars, scratching at the walls, requiring some key part of herself constantly turned inward to keep watch against their escape and so not available to help keep an eye out for trouble coming at her from without and trouble she’s rushing into headlong.
Something else is left out of Truth. The whole wider world. It’s not vitally present visually or dramatically. We don’t get accidental glimpses of it. It doesn’t enter in the form of props or pieces of the set or activity in the background. We don’t hear about it in snatches of dialog as characters talk about their lives apart from their roles in the plot. It isn’t brought in by ancillary characters. Characters who aren’t directly connected to Mapes and her investigation enter as if from nowhere and exit on their way to nowhere except out of the scene. Truth takes place almost entirely within the cozy work world of Mapes’ relatively small circle of friends and colleagues, which means it often feels and looks like a television workplace drama…
...or comedy. It reminded me of one of those in particular.
Watching Truth didn’t put me in mind of other movies about journalists at work on big stories. I didn’t reflect back on All the President’s Men or look forward to Spotlight.
I kept thinking about The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
I think it was the critic Northrop Frye who said Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are two sides of the same dramatic coin.
In one we can see the comedy behind the tragedy and in the other the tragedy lurking in the comedy. Taken together, they show us how a little change in circumstance can mean the difference between a stage strewn with corpses and one full of pairs of lovers happily married and ready to live happily ever after.
To put it less grandly: it doesn’t take much for laughter to turn to tears.
That’s how I feel about Truth and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The comparison would make Redford’s Rather a mirror image of Ed Asner’s Lou Grant, and, without making too much of it, he is. He’s a surrogate father to Mapes, but not a grouchy one like Lou was with his Mary. He’s easy-going and more likely to react to her with amusement than with exasperation.
Mary Mapes has spunk.
Dan Rather doesn’t hate spunk.
He can’t get enough of it.
Which turns out to be a problem for both of them.
Rather is an indulgent father, one of those dads so proud of his kid that, even when he knows she’s goofing up, he can’t bring himself to get mad or make her go back and correct her mistakes. In fact, he’s more likely to trust her judgment than his own. There are key moments when we can see him resisting her enthusiastic push to get the story done as she’s sure it can be done and then deciding that she’s probably right and he’s wrong. He lets her have her way, and of course we cringe, knowing what’s coming from that.
One of the things Truth does well is show how very smart, well-intentioned, dedicated and talented people can put their heads together to come up with a way to screw up royally. And that’s another thing. Truth might have been better if it had been about that.
Truth is honest about the mistakes Mapes and Rather and their team made. And it does raise the question as to whether the whole project was a mistake from start to finish. But in the end its answer is a resounding but not completely convincing no.
The reason it’s not convincing is that the answer maybe should have been yes.
It’s not that the story wasn’t true---it was. The mistake stemmed from Mapes’ being so sure of the story that she didn’t stop to ask exactly what the story was or---and this is key---if it really was a story, one worth telling and that needed to be told now.
I think it was all three things, a story, a story worth telling, and a story that needed to be told right then. But that’s a political opinion. It’s not a professional’s judgment. And what we see again and again in Truth is a professional who lets not her politics but her pride get the better of her professional judgment.
That’s a potentially tragic situation. Unfortunately, in the end Vanderbilt decides Mapes is more of a heroic victim than a tragic heroine.
She was a victim. She and Rather and their team were victimized the same way the Dixie Chicks and anybody of note who publicly opposed the war and criticized our war-hero President were victimized. But, as I’ve been saying, that isn’t an explicit theme in Truth.
At any rate, one of the pleasures of watching Truth is like one of the great pleasures of watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which was the interplay between Moore and Asner. Blanchett and Redford make a good team. Blanchett takes complete command of their scenes together while still making clear Mapes’ deep affection and respect for Rather---and her own for Redford---and he gives way, never pulling rank, following her lead, and trusting that by doing so, his own performance will be improved.
Redford, by the way, doesn’t try to do Dan Rather. He makes almost no attempt at an impersonation. Doesn’t even darken his hair or affect the folksiness or add a trace of a drawl. The only touch is the way he holds himself when Rather is on camera. But it works.
Redford presents himself as Rather and we accept it.
Good as they are together, Redford’s best moment comes when he’s all alone on screen, talking on the phone to Mapes from the terrace of his apartment. It’s a soliloquy not a conversation. Rather’s slightly drunk and he’s feeling confessional and apologetic. He feels that he’s let her down, let himself down, and let his profession down. Without being named, the ghost of Murrow haunts the scene. It’s the most open and vulnerable I’ve seen Redford play a scene, although he’s directed many other actors in scenes as emotionally revealing.
Blanchett, of course, has many such moments, on her own, with Redford, and with the other members of the cast. She gets some terrific support.
Grace is alternately and simultaneously irritating, loveable, pathetic, admirable, and funny as Smith, unsure of where he is least at home, in the wide world or inside his own skin and finding comfort only in the company of Mapes. As Vietnam veteran, retired Marine Corps Lt Colonel Roger Charles, Mapes’ team’s military expert, Dennis Quaid plays a very cheerful yin to Grace’s Smith’s yang, philosophical where Smith is outraged, ironic where Smith is driven to moralizing, cool and self-controlled but just as idealistic and committed to the job of investigative journalism, and confident---it’s the calm certainty Quaid imbues Charles with that persuades us that the story is true and that Mapes is right to keep digging and pushing.
Elisabeth Moss’ role is mainly to make her luminous presence felt so that her character, journalism professor and associate-producer Lucy Smith, isn’t lost in her co-stars' shadows. Bruce Greenwood, David Lyons, Rachael Blake, and Natalie Saleeba as higher-ups at CBS News do fine jobs presenting various mixes of professional concern and careerist cravenness. John Benjamin Hickey as Mapes’ supportive and understanding husband gives strength to a character who is mainly there to be a shoulder to cry on. He keeps his and Blanchett’s scenes together from turning into mere soliloquies in which Blanchett gets to show her tender side. And Dermot Mulroney is a formidable devil’s advocate for the case that Maples really did screw up.
But it’s Stacy Keach as Mapes’ team’s infuriatingly unreliable main source Bill Burkett who steals scenes right and left. Keach makes Burkett’s every gesture and inflection a tell. Burkett isn’t just a liar, he’s a bad liar. At least, that’s one way to see him. Another is to see him as a bad actor. He’s playing the lead in a melodramatic movie version of his own life he’s making in his own head. The story he’s telling is true but true in the way most movies based on real life are true. We just can’t tell, Keach is just that slippery in his portrayal. Plus, he makes Burkett’s self-pity his most persuasive trait. You can see how people would just feel so sorry for the brave semi-invalid forced to tow an oxygen tank everywhere he goes that they’d just want everything he says to be true so they didn’t have to hurt his feelings by calling him a liar.
Thinking it over, maybe my idea to show Truth to the staff of CBS News isn’t such a good one. They should watch Redford’s rooftop news as a public trust speech but in its failure to tie Mapes’ troubles to the larger political story, Truth is too much a personal story. Mapes is reduced to a wronged heroine in a workplace melodrama bravely but barely holding up in the face of severe emotional distress in Oscar-baiting fashion. What happens to her and Rather is too bad for them, but many people have had it a lot worse.
Starting with the tens and tens of thousands of people who were killed and wounded in the war and continuing to this day with the victims of the mess our one-time War President, the Decider, George W. Bush and his team of incompetents made in Iraq.
Truth, written and directed by James Vanderbilt. Based on the book Truth: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power by Mary Mapes. Starring Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid, Topher Gracer, Elisabeth Moss, and Stacy Keach. Rated R. In select theaters.