Truth is not in abundant supply in “Truth.” If I were you, I’d see it anyway.
Why? Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, that’s why. Enough said. Blanchett, alone, has become one of those precious few performers in modern movies that audiences shouldn’t miss, no matter what she’s playing, even if she were pretending to be a bowl of parsnips.
But if, for instance, you were looking for a movie that has some actual sense of Dan Rather’s place in the world of TV news, you’ll find it a bit of a howler that Rather, the fount of pseudo-folksy Texas twaddle on election nights is being played by a congenital screen virtuecrat like Redford.
Can you, even for a minute, imagine Redford as the hapless victim of a 1986 street mugging by two guys whom Rather reported asking “What’s the frequency Kenneth?” (Which was turned into a song by R.E.M. which Rather – always a sucker for any kind of attention – is said to have liked.)
It is now one of the major misfortunes of American movies that after his early career, Redford has come to be incapable of being an anti-hero on screen, much less an outright villain. As far as James Vanderbilt’s new film seems to have it, Redford is just a misled version of the same journalistic Galahad that he played as Bob Woodward in “All The President’s Men” as he zipped in and out of rows at city court getting president-toppling scoops.
Hooey, I say. You’ve got the wrong actor for Rather. Let’s have an actor playing the kind of highly theatrical anchor whom Tom Shales insouciantly referred to as “Gunga Dan” whenever he’d star in network news theater rather than the well-suspendered epitome of Clarence Darrow virtue Redford plays in “Truth.” Ridiculous casting, I say. But that doesn’t stop Redford from being very good in a role with minimal credibility. In his old age, he’s doing some of his best work as an actor. (See “All is Lost” but in a theater, not on video.)
Blanchett, on the other hand, is magnificent – electrifyingly good as Rather’s producer Mary Mapes, the woman responsible for putting on the air a highly charged story that openly courted vigorous denial by the powers-that-be.
Among the many useful – and yes, truthful – things that “Truth” illustrates for civilians is how very much producers are the ones who are television’s “reporters” and how those people think of as reporters are recitalists, dancing to others’ music.
The most important story “Truth” implies – but is never conscious of – is a gigantic problem in American life: that there is a yawning gap between accepted “Truth” and the occupational rules and regulations of contemporary journalism. It’s a gap so large that in the past 20 years, late-night wiseacres and then satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been able to slip through it and, for many people (especially young ones), co-opt completely journalism’s role as primary purveyor of truth in American life.
You’d have to be a died-in-the-wool Bushmonger to think that everything about George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service was kosher and involved no political favoritism. The common sense that God gave a broccoli stalk would tell us that if some pressure weren’t applied in Texas by the Bush family during the Vietnam years, the whole family have had to be a wee bit nuts.
Whatever “Poppy” Bush and Barbara Bush may have been back then, no one ever said they were nuts. So, of course, Mary Mapes felt entitled to go after the story in the era when “swiftboating” seemed de rigeur. The trouble of course is that by the accepted and orthodox rules and procedures of contemporary journalism, they just couldn’t nail it down. CBS News’ documents were suspect; so were the witnesses who swore by them.
Their story may have been made of solid gold. But what we think we know – or at least suspect – isn’t always provable. Whatever we all think about who killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, courtroom procedures and money and jury unpredictability took the “story” a different way. Investigative journalism requires documents that don’t dissolve into pulp at the first rude touch; it requires witnesses who don’t have so many axes to grind that they could fill a wall at Home Depot.
The “W” guard story didn’t have that. “Truth” is based on Mapes’ book on the whole affair. There were members of the investigative team who were newbies. And the amount of time they had to fill in the details kept shrinking just as the possible consequences of the story kept looming larger. “Let’s get it on the air, you know? Right after ‘Survivor.’ ”
So that’s how they put on the air a story that got Rather and Mapes voted off the island. (Rather to Mapes: “I got the president of the network his job. I’m gonna be fine.”)
Welcome to the Wild West World of Information on the Internet. Welcome to the Media World of “Corporate Positioning.”
Rather wasn’t one of CBS’ “Murrow’s Boys” but he’d worked with enough of them to sound like them. And that’s what he sounds like at the end when he remembers TV news when it was public trust, before it was discovered it could actually make money. Redford, the movie idealist, can carry that off.
Rather, of course, is happy with “Truth.” CBS is not. The only one who actually deserves to be proud of the film, it seems to me, is Blanchett. I just don’t think American movies have an actress who’s better at the moment.
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood
Director: James Vanderbilt
Running time: 121 minutes
Rating: R for language and a brief nude photo.
The Lowdown: How Dan Rather lost his CBS anchor job when his 2004 “60 Minutes II” report on George W. Bush was questioned.