Three stars. Rated R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.30.15
This film is quite intriguing, in part because its title reflects great irony: Almost no “truth” emerges here.
Director/scripter James Vanderbilt’s politically charged drama is based on the late 2004 events that later came to be known as “Rathergate”: the CBS 60 Minutes news piece that cast doubt on the details of then-president George W. Bush’s National Guard service.
The questions that initially fueled the journalistic investigation — whether strings had been pulled to get Bush into the Texas Air National Guard, as opposed to service in Vietnam; and whether he had, in fact, honorably completed said National Guard service — quickly were submerged beneath a rising tide of questions regarding the legitimacy of the investigation’s sources and “smoking-gun documentation.”
This script is based on Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power, the 2005 book by Mary Mapes, who produced the CBS News piece, but Vanderbilt is an unlikely candidate for such an assignment. His previous résumé is limited to crime dramas and high-octane action epics such as The Amazing Spider-Man and White House Down, and his dialog here too frequently sounds like amateur efforts to imitate Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet.
The performances are robust, and Vanderbilt has done reasonably well with this directing debut; he knows how to guide his actors through their scenes. No question, as well, that this is an important story, and one with lessons to be learned. But the narrative is frequently clumsy, the timeline occasionally confusing, and we’re ultimately left with more questions than answers (which, although almost certainly intentional, is nonetheless irritating).
On top of which, Vanderbilt makes a few glaring rookie mistakes, starting with his opening scene, wherein Mapes (Cate Blanchett) begins an intense first meeting with ... somebody. We’re inclined to assume he’s a shrink; we eventually learn, much later, that he’s a lawyer. Either way, he’s a gimmick that allows Mapes to recount her story while it’s still happening, which is simply daft.
The narrative proper begins in the spring of 2004, just as CBS broadcasts Mapes’ breaking-news story of the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse. It’s a moment of triumph — and a piece that would go on to win CBS and Mapes a Peabody Award — but, in the demanding environment of a news studio, just another assignment completed, with many more to go.