Truth movie review: when journalistic truth is ugly (#LFF2015)

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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