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.
As it happens, Mapes has been poking around the details of Bush’s National Guard service for several years, with little to show for it. She pitches this potential exposé to Josh Howard (David Lyons), executive producer of Wednesday evening’s 60 Minutes II, and senior broadcast producer Mary Murphy (Natalie Saleeba); they encourage her to assemble a team to dig out the story — if indeed there is a story — once and for all.
Mapes hand-picks her investigative associates: Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), a military consultant who worked with her on the Abu Ghraib story; Mike Smith (Topher Grace), a Texas-based freelancer with a flair for chasing down hot tips; and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), a Dallas journalism professor and tireless researcher.
And, of course, Dan Rather (Robert Redford), who has worked with Mapes for years, and who trusts both her instincts and her integrity.
The enticing “hook” isn’t merely that Bush might have used family connections to avoid the Vietnam War draft, but also the possibility that he may have been guilty of dereliction of duty while in the National Guard. The big break arrives when Mapes is handed half a dozen previously unseen memos by former Texas Army National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach): memos signed by L. Col. Jerry B. Killian, the deceased commanding officer of the 111th Fighter Intercept Squadron during Bush’s supposed time there.
The physically ailing Burkett seems a strange source for such material: a detail that we viewers grasp immediately — in part with the benefit of hindsight, but also due to the delicate nuances of Keach’s performance — but which seems lost on Mapes and her colleagues. And while efforts are made to vet and double-source the memos’ relevant contents, during the subsequent weeks, the documents themselves seem, well, rather fishy.
In part because of the insufferably arbitrary nature of network scheduling, Mapes and her team wind up rushing the story to meet an earlier-than-expected broadcast window.
And then all hell breaks loose, the precise nature of which won’t be revealed here, because it’s fascinating for the way in which everything turns to merde.
Although Vanderbilt’s script pulls no punches with respect to the blindingly obvious investigative mistakes and oversights, we’re nonetheless encouraged to believe — based in great part on Blanchett’s alternately earnest and anguished performance — that these errors resulted mostly from the ill-advised rush to judgment, as opposed to partisan bias, or a nefarious effort to derail Bush’s chances for re-election, or a deliberate attempt to fabricate a response to the swift-boating smear campaign against Democratic challenger John Kerry.
How you feel about such a reading, in a film of this nature, likely depends on where you fall in the red/blue divide. Journalists make mistakes; depending on the severity of the transgression, they apologize and move on. It’s hard not to smell behind-the-scenes skullduggery — articulated so wonderfully, in one scene, by Grace’s ultra-liberal Mike Smith — given how many warm bodies subsequently are thrown under CBS’ corporate bus.
On the other hand, perhaps the “mistakes” are serious enough that such punishment is warranted. Folks will debate that one until the cows come home.
Blanchett plays Mapes with a nobility of purpose: a reading that perfectly suits this actress. We fondly recall Blanchett’s long list of strong-willed and virtuous real-life women, from Queen Elizabeth I to Katharine Hepburn and Veronica Guerin. Blanchett’s performance is powerful, nuanced and by far this film’s strongest asset: a good thing, since she’s in almost every scene.
Initially assured, energetic and absolutely on top of her game, we watch, utterly fascinated, as Mapes crumbles before our eyes: as persuasive a descent into beaten, insecure helplessness as her Academy Award-winning work in 2013’s Blue Jasmine.
Mapes’ final emotional destruction, during a brief telephone conversation with her father, is heartbreaking.
That said, Vanderbilt lards Mapes’ initial nobility a bit too thick, during scenes with her devoted husband (John Benjamin Hickey, in a quiet but nicely sincere performance) and their precocious 7-year-old son (Connor Burke). We get it, we get it: She’s the perfect superwoman.
She’s also the only character who seems to have a home life. Charles and Smith are never seen outside the office — until a fleeting (but droll) exchange at the end — and Scott is granted no more that two eyeblink scenes in her Dallas classroom. It becomes difficult to see this film as anything but a valentine to Mary Mapes.
That said, Redford delivers a disarmingly shaded performance, initially looking and sounding nothing like Dan Rather ... until, suddenly, he does. We ultimately grieve for this man: a much-decorated and invaluable face of American news, now destined to be remembered solely for a single (if quite large) error in judgment.
Blanchett’s ferocity notwithstanding, other cast members snatch some grand moments. Noni Hazlehurst is terrific as Burkett’s protective wife, particularly when she coldly scolds Mapes and her team for their self-serving callousness. And while Smith’s aforementioned tirade wouldn’t occur in real life — we’re never that passionately eloquent, during times of righteous indignation — Grace makes it a cathartic “movie moment.”
Dermot Mulroney also gets in some great verbal shots as Lawrence Lanpher, the condescending leader of the subsequent investigation into Mapes’ “behavior” while she shaped the doomed news story.
Concluding text blocks tell us what became of Mapes and Rather, but we get no closure regarding the initial questions that fueled their investigation. Details regarding Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service remain murky, and in dispute, to this day ... which, frankly, is a bit chilling.
Truth therefore is a story without an ending. I’ll grant Vanderbilt’s earnest intentions, but the results are ... well ... unsatisfying. Even so, this film is an intriguing bookend for Redford, who made such a splash in the similarly themed — but far more engaging — All the President’s Men so many years ago.
That’s the way I’d prefer to remember America’s hard-working journalists: as heroes, not sloppy buffoons.