Truth movie review: when journalistic truth is ugly (LFF 2015)

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Truth green light

A fascinating look at the pitfalls of modern journalism, and a compelling portrait of a journalist who paid a high price for letting them trip her up.
I’m “biast” (pro): I believe reality has a liberal bias

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Right, so, in September 2004, CBS’s newsmagazine 60 Minutes aired a story about recently uncovered military memos from the 1970s that appeared to offer some background to the fact — undisputed fact — that then U.S. President George W. Bush had failed to fulfill the requirements of his service in the Texas Air National Guard, which was itself a way for him to dodge the draft and avoid being sent to Vietnam. And almost instantly afterward, the authenticity of the memos came under attack. Not the content of the memos, but the presentation of them: it sure as heck looked like they had been produced not on a typewriter in the early 1970s but on a computer with the 2004 version of Microsoft Word and then run through a photocopier to artificially age them. (The originals of the documents were never made available to CBS; their source, who was problematic himself, offered only copies.) It spelled career disaster for 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes and highly respected veteran CBS anchor Dan Rather.

So what happened? Truth, based on a book by Mapes, takes us behind the scenes at 60 Minutes for what is certainly a subjective but also a fascinating account of the pitfalls of single-source reporting and the incompatibility of the needs of corporate television with the requirements of quality journalism. Mapes (Cate Blanchett [Cinderella, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies], as compulsively watchable as always) and her team of researchers (Elisabeth Moss [Listen Up Philip, On the Road], Topher Grace [American Ultra, Interstellar], and Dennis Quaid [Movie 43, What to Expect When You’re Expecting]) were rushed to air with their story because of limited availability in the TV schedule — and with the pressure of the looming Presidential election — but also may have let their not unreasonable presumptions about the veracity of the content of the memos influence their decision to accept them on the whole. Were the memos a Republican dirty trick designed to given the right wing a way to “debunk” the truth? It’s difficult not to imagine this is the case, when the controversy over the memos that instantly erupted and caused a PR nightmare for CBS effectively shut down all discussion of Bush’s Guard service, even the previously substantiated stuff.

The script — by screenwriter James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, White House Down), also making a solid directorial debut here — doesn’t take a stand on the authenticity of the memos, though it does, unsurprisingly, let Mapes argue in their favor. Truth is, above all, a compelling portrait of Mapes herself, hinting at the terrible childhood that fueled her tenacity as a journalist — a tenacity that may have had its own blind spots — and examining the father-figure connection she had with Rather, an intellectual and emotional replacement for her own abusive father, a relationship that may also have contributed some blind spots in her; did she let a possible desire to please Rather overrule her professional instincts? (Rather is played by Robert Redford [Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Lions for Lambs], who is as good as ever, though it’s kinda tough to see “Rather” when it is impossible for Redford to disappear into a role.) Truth isn’t unkind to its subject, but it smartly leaves us to draw our own conclusions.

viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Truth for its representation of girls and women.

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Thu, Nov 05, 2015 10:53pm

Jeepers. “Undisputed fact”. “Republican dirty trick”. You have fallen for a false narrative that Rather and Mapes are still trying to push. The documents were forged, and everyone knows it. The rest of the story was basically unsourced, and would never have made it to television without the documents.
I remember the story at the time. It was a great story, exciting – of how the blogosphere was able to uncover a total lie that the mainstream media doggedly defended until it exploded in their faces. Most of the important discoveries were made by armchair bloggers; the White House played no role at all.
That was the story that should have been told – how Truth won, for once, over a bunch of media hot-shots who tried to throw an election.

reply to  MikeR
Fri, Nov 06, 2015 7:30am

Well, that didn’t take long.

Tue, May 17, 2016 2:17pm

I loved this movie. The taint of “Memogate” stuck in my with me during the rare times I thought about Vietnam era Bush. This movie reminded me of how I felt at the time. Yes, okay, maybe those particular memos were questionable. But was it true that people used influence to get an under qualified Bush into the National Gaurd? Is true that he didn’t fulfill his obligations while there? Is it true the unit to which he belonged was populated by the sons of other powerful men; to the degree it earned the nickname…the ‘Champagne’ unit? As the daughter of a Vietnam vet ( and all that entails) I was left frustrated by the obsession with those two pieces of paper to the exclusion of all else.
There were questions which needed answering, questions that had to do with important things, like, honor, courage, humility and, yes…truth. But once the memos came into question, the story became the story. And everyone stopped asking the important questions in favor of scandalmongering.
I’d forgotten. Memogate had it’s effect on me as well, over time those questions were wiped from my own mind. TRUTH was a fresh look at what many of us excepted as established history.