In the run-up to the 2004 US presidential election, a shocking report was carried by the CBS Wednesday news programme 60 Minutes. It was fronted by Dan Rather with the backing of the brilliant and awarded producer Mary Mapes. The consequences were terrible for the news team: Mapes was fired, Rather resigned and CBS publicly apologised.
Based on leaked e-mails whose authenticity was soon derided, the report stated, in effect, that President George W Bush (who in the wake of 9/11 invaded Iraq) was a draft-dodger in the Vietnam era and that political pressure covered up his records in the noncombat Texas Air National Guard, alleging disregard of orders and absenteeism.
The chorus of condemnation was that the Mapes report was at the least an overhasty and possibly fraudulent attempt to disgrace Bush, running for re-election — or that Mapes, a “liberal”, had been suckered into a decoy operation. Her “radical feminism” had rushed the contested documents onto the air without the intensity of fact-checking and caution that CBS (with some justice) claimed for its network.
Truth is based on Mapes’ understandably defensive 2005 memoir of the events — and with this proud, professional woman played by the brilliant Blanchett (her screen charisma at its height) she is the brave heart and true soul of the vicious corporate and power plays that unfold around her. Redford cannot quite attain the “voice of American reason” that Rather projected to millions; but has enough guts and father-figure glamour to make him and Mapes almost legendary as a professional couple.
Rightly, though, the film’s focus is almost entirely on Mapes. As media claims and counterclaims hurl volcanic outbursts of hatred at her (and this is exactly what does occur to serious women caught up in life’s little horrors) she tends to her son, her husband, and her often-quaky self-possession.
There are tough players around the leads: the investigative unit; CBS boardroom back-stabbers; politicians with wavy morals; conspiracy theorists; and military men with grudges. They include such honed actors as Grace, Moss, Greenwood, Keach, Quaid, and many others. But with so many secondary and tertiary figures, the relatively clean line of the 60 Minutes report and its virulent effects is lost.
Then there is the overbearing nature of the film: its didacticism; plodding attempts to trace the branching strings of events (and their credibility); and the real “truth” of the wandering, even boring movie emerges. This is not the high-minded virtue intended by the lame title and uncovered by sterling hacks. It’s a one-sided, pro-journo paean of regard for itself. The team really only suggests: “Bush was always a bum — now we can prove it.”
Such virtue is scarce in any news team I know of, least of all in this country with its fake reports, leaks, internal hatreds, indifference to true public interest, and the space on page or air to bloviate endlessly on this or that issue. The minute inspection of fonts to demonstrate that the Bush reports postdated available technology, and the death of the ultimate source of the e-mails, put verification beyond possibility.
Every so often, Mapes, Rather, or someone who appears to be reading from a script makes an artificial assault on the heights of authenticity, praising the media for its constitutional role in keeping government clean, unveiling hypocrisy, sweeping ethical alleys, and so on.
The film will be enjoyed by those who see or believe they see journalism as an issue of truth versus lies, tenacity versus corruption. Devotees of Blanchett and Redford will not be disappointed. Others should see the latest Ninja Turtles epic.
Written and directed by James Vanderbilt (based on disputed documents on President George W Bush’s military record)
Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elizabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, Dennis Quaid