In the early days of 2005, CBS Evening News anchorman Dan Rather announced his retirement. Though there was a half-hearted attempt to allow Rather's departure to maintain a facade of dignity, the reality of the situation was clear to anyone who had been following the news: Rather was being shoved out the door in the wake of a controversy involving a story he had done on then-President George W. Bush's Air National Guard service record. CBS was ultimately forced to retract the story after learning that one of their key sources had misled them in a couple of crucial areas, thus casting a shadow of doubt on everything else they had learned. Rather certainly wasn't the one to blame for the mistake, but he was the one who delivered the story to the American public, so he suffered the consequences. After decades of stellar work, one of America's premiere TV journalists was being sacrificed on the alter of political pressure.
The events that led up to this moment are explored in James Vanderbilt's Truth, which casts Rather (played with graceful charm by Robert Redford, All is Lost) in a key supporting role and instead centers on Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett, Carol), the producer of the controversial segment. The report itself serves as a neat dividing line of sorts for the movie. Before the report is aired, the film is a brisk, busy All the President's Men-esque journalism movie about tracking down notoriously difficult sources, following obscure leads and reading between the lines of legal documents. After it airs, it becomes the story of a long, slow, painful retreat from a report containing a minor but ultimately fatal flaw.
It's a little unfortunate that Truth had to be released around the same time as the excellent Spotlight, as the latter occasionally feels like a devastatingly effective point-by-point rebuttal of everything Truth does thematically and artistically. On the thematic level, Spotlight heavily emphasized the importance of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” in the world of journalism. The film recognizes that one tiny misstep can undo everything, even if everything in the report is fundamentally true. In contrast, Truth chooses to merely lament the fact that people get hung up on little errors instead of looking at the bigger picture. How dare people focus on a single faulty source instead of the larger truth? Isn't it enough to be right, even if you didn't take the correct path to get there?
There's certainly a valid complaint to be made about the way modern news organizations bend their agendas to conform to corporate or political pressures, and about the way other media outlets choose to opportunistically rip each other apart over inaccuracies instead of trying to get closer to the larger truth of the story in question. Still, the film goes entirely too far in its attempt to depict Mapes, Rather and the other journalists who worked on the story as victims. Were they treated too harshly? Yes, but the fact of the matter is that they rushed the story to air in an effort to make sure they were the first to report it, they neglected to double-check every detail and they screwed up a report that – if handled correctly – could have turned the tide of the 2004 presidential election. The film has no interest in holding Mapes and co. accountable for their mistakes, and by casually dismissing the legitimate issues with their reporting, the film loses the credibility it desperately needs to make this story work. There's a lot of nuance in the real-life story, and the filmmakers seem to be afraid that acknowledging it will cost them their moral outrage. Fair warning: the scene in which Mapes unsubtly compares herself to the victims of McCarthyism may cause your eyes to roll out of your head.
Truth also suffers from comparisons to Spotlight in terms of basic craftsmanship. While Tom McCarthy's journalism drama created a world that felt lived-in, detailed and quietly authentic, Truth is filled to the brim with reminders that you're watching an Important Movie About Things That Matter. On far too many occasions, the film gives into the temptation to sermonize or turn a perfectly compelling little moment into something melodramatic. Topher Grace (American Ultra) – playing an enterprising young reporter who does contract work for Mapes – has one big monologue midway through the film that stands out as a particularly phony, miscalculated piece of theatricality (it's mostly the writing, but Grace doesn't really have the chops to sell it). An early “assembling the team” sequence feels like something lifted directed from an Ocean's 11 knock-off; the sort of thing that would feel more at home in a cheesy summer blockbuster than a serious drama aimed at grown-ups. The closing shot of Redford – slow-mo smiles and sweeping strings – feels like the concluding shot from a cornball inspirational sports drama. Vanderbilt lacks faith in his audience, and he demonstrates a tendency to shove when a gentle nudge would have sufficed.
The film might have been insufferable if not for the fine work of Blanchett and Redford; old pros who consistently seem to be operating at a more sophisticated level than the rest of the film. As Mapes, Blanchett delivers a character who seems to exist somewhere between “confident authority figure” and “woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown” (moving closer to one side or the other depending on where we're at in the story). At times, she almost feels like the protagonist of an old noir drama: a woman who makes a small mistake that leads to huge, inescapable consequences. Redford's portrait of Rather doesn't have a lot of complexity – he's basically St. Dan – but the actor compensates for it by bringing his signature understated grace to the part. There's one moment when he attempts to humor a colleague by uttering a long-retired catchphrase (“Courage”), but the second syllable of the word gets choked by an amused bit of laughter. Little moments like that leave a much bigger impression than any of Grace's thunderous speechifying.
Unfortunately, the members of the supporting cast are wasted and poorly-drawn. Grace and a reporter played by Dennis Quaid refer to each other as “hippie scum” and “Jarhead f---,” and the actual characterization doesn't run much deeper than those affectionate stereotypes. Elizabeth Moss – who gave us one of 2015's great film performances in Queen of Earth and one of the 21st century's great TV performances on Mad Men – is wasted in a role that gives her almost nothing to do. Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) capably plays a generic executive, and Stacy Keach (Lights Out) has a few decent scenes as the aforementioned slippery source.
The most frustrating thing about Truth is that it has some legitimate points to make about the state of modern news media. On too many occasions, important stories have been killed by relatively insignificant distractions, and it has become increasingly difficult for media organizations to maintain both journalistic integrity and a steady revenue stream. There's a riveting story in here somewhere, but Truth places its thumb on the scales entirely too often, refusing to permit messy (and potentially rewarding) shades of gray into the mix. The work Blanchett and Redford serve up deserves a better film.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Year: 2015