The controversial “60 Minutes” segment about President George W. Bush’s military record that led to veteran news anchor Dan Rather’s forced resignation is skillfully revisited in “Truth,” a docudrama starring Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid.
With “Truth,” screenwriter James Vanderbilt (“Zodiac”) makes a potent directorial debut, pulling back the newsroom veneer and taking viewers through the media firestorm that erupted over perceived inaccuracies in a report on Bush’s hazy years in the Texas Air National Guard. An absorbing journalism drama in the vein of “All the President’s Men,” “Truth” is bolstered by Vanderbilt’s sturdy screenplay and dominant performances from the capable cast, particularly Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes, the Peabody winning “60 Minutes” producer at the heart of the scandal. Despite the outward dryness of its premise, this fall release is sure to fascinate with its treasure trove of behind-the-scenes details and cogent commentary on the modern day news cycle and how easily reality is distorted by conjecture.
Set in 2004 in the months leading up to the election, “Truth” is centered on Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), a hands-on “60 Minutes” producer riding high after breaking the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. Looking for her next subject, Mapes’ curiosity is piqued while discussing rumors about discrepancies in Bush’s military records with her bosses (David Lyons and Natalie Saleeba). With other outlets also chasing the story, the CBS honchos give Mary the go-ahead to round up an investigative team (Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss and Topher Grace) and pursue her leads.
After dogged research, Mapes’ findings indicate that Bush essentially went AWOL from May 1972 to May 1973 after being reassigned to Alabama – a far graver offense than merely using family connections to secure a cushy post during wartime. Unfortunately, finding someone willing to go on the record to corroborate the journalist’s discovery proves difficult. Unable to convince former Texas Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes (Philip Quast) to publicly discuss his claim of having helped Bush get into the Texas National Guard, the “60 Minutes” team receive their big break when documents surface seemingly proving Bush’s absenteeism. Confident in their research, Mapes enlists the help of her friend and longtime collaborator Dan Rather (Robert Redford) to help bring the story to air.
Following the broadcast, Mapes’ main piece of evidence, though accurate in nature, is revealed to be a forgery, and her cause isn’t helped by the fact that she cut some corners due to time constraints. With every media outlet on the planet champing at the bit to take down an institution like “60 Minutes,” the story itself becomes drowned out by smear campaigns and allegations of CBS partisanship. As an internal investigation is launched and the attacks against the network reach a fever pitch, Mapes and the venerable newsman wage their own war to clear their names.
Having already chronicled the backroom chaos of a media outlet breaking a national story with the serial killer thriller “Zodiac,” writer-director James Vanderbilt’s screenplay is first-rate in its attention to detail of how the nuts and bolts of a story get put together. Whether it’s producers in the editing suite in the moments leading up to airtime, or reporters in the field tirelessly pursuing leads, Vanderbilt authentically captures the exhilarating highs and discouraging lows of the profession. Even if you recall the bullet points of this media fiasco, the real spectacle took place behind closed doors, and the first-time filmmaker smartly takes an unshowy directorial approach that underscores the story’s inherent drama. And while there is a sobering quality to the film given the characters’ doomed fate, Vanderbilt’s film is full of compassion for these purveyors of truth whose careers were sacrificed to protect the corporate banner.
As the high-strung and headstrong producer Mary Mapes, Cate Blanchett adds another flawless performance to her resume. As one of the main figures at the center of a media crucifixion, Mapes was subjected to the emotional gauntlet, and Blanchett inhabits the role with a veteran’s ease. The Aussie thespian is a mainstay on the awards scene, and between her performances here and in the upcoming Todd Haynes drama “Carol,” a nomination is virtually guaranteed. In the role of longtime CBS news anchor Dan Rather, Robert Redford brings the right amount of gravitas and subtle humor to his portrayal. Although Rather was instrumental in the “60 Minutes” story that led to his and Mapes’ downfall, as the face of CBS News, he was unfairly subjected to the harshest criticism, and Redford perfectly captures the bottled rage of a long-respected newsman whose integrity is called into question. Secondary standouts include Stacey Keach (“Nebraska”) as a former Texas National Guard lieutenant and Topher Grace as a feisty freelancer who joins Mapes’ investigative team.
Running Time: 125 minutes
Rated R for language and a brief nude photo.