Of the two marquee-exhausting films about new millennium journalism that played at this year’s TIFF, it’s somewhat fitting that Truth will end up the also-ran. While any movie about breaking the Massachusetts Catholic sex abuse scandal shouldn’t make for light digestion, at least Spotlight gives the fourth estate a clear victory to point to. Truth, an adaptation of Mary Mapes’ memoir, “Truth and Duty: The Press, The President And The Privilege Of Power,” hasn’t the luxury of such clarity. That’s somewhat the point, but it’s also what makes this particular story a tough fit for a two-hour retelling.
Opening in the eye of a six-month media storm that would be reduced to shorthand like Rathergate, Truth takes Mapes’ perspective on the 2004 controversy that would cause the Peabody-winning TV news producer to lose her job. When we first see Mapes, assayed by Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett, she’s meeting with a lawyer. Their discussion pertains to a review panel established to determine whether Mapes showed proper judgment in airing a recent story on 60 Minutes. The opening shot, an overhead look at the multi-floor, segmented office, has an Escher quality to it that makes for Truth’s most impressive image.
The rest of the film is shot as a “just the facts” kind of historical biopic that plays to the strengths of actors and writers: close ups and talking heads are the order of the day. The concession is understandable, given that scripter James Vanderbilt is also making his first go at directing with Truth. Though Vanderbilt’s writing resume mostly consists of action movies of varying ambition and quality, his 2007 adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s non-fiction book “Zodiac” was turned into Zodiac, one of the best investigative thrillers ever made.
Rather than the side dish to a historical murder mystery, the pavement pounding, terrible diet, and craving for a hot scoop driving the journalists in Zodiac is Truth’s key fascination. Though framed from the very beginning as potentially swaying the 2004 federal election, the report that would discredit Mapes, her team, and anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) is as much a fight for the soul of broadcast journalism as it is one story. When a source provides Mapes with copied memos that indicate President Bush neglected his National Guard duties during Vietnam, the story is rushed to air, and causes a massive media snafu once the credibility of the documents comes into question.
Among the virtues Truth stumps for is the importance of what people say, not how it is presented. You can respect Vanderbilt’s functional direction on these grounds, even as many scenes play out like long info dumps. Of course, another of Truth’s concerns is how information overload has made clear-cut, actionable reporting almost impossible, and keeping up with the details of this story your full attention. The development of the 60 Minutes segment at Truth’s center follows a messy paper trail -and that’s when documents and testimonials are taken at face value. Once the evidence and corroborators start being analyzed for errors and motives, keeping track of everything at play can tax much of your immediate processing power.
Vanderbilt compensates with repeated or summarized exposition, and liberal use of character-identifying lower thirds. But Truth also relies heavily on a mawkishly dignified score and some grandstanding performances as soundbite cues for a desired reaction. A montage of Mapes assembling her group of researchers feels plucked from a caper heist movie, while the actual airing of September 8th’s “For the Record” is intercut with reactions from around the nation captured in dewy slow motion. When Topher Grace sinks his teeth into an excoriating rant about CBS’s corporate interests manipulating the story’s fallout, the size of his delivery isn’t in service of the statement he’s trying to make.
Then again, maybe Vanderbilt felt he could only get people’s attention by going as big as possible. Where the tactic works is in having a star like Cate Blanchett hold the film together. Given the source of the movie’s material, it’s not surprising that it sides with Mapes in nearly all matters. But Blanchett brings nuance and complexity to a role that might not otherwise allow for it. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for Redford: by the end of the film, his Rather has become such a caricature of ol’ fashioned newsman integrity that his resignation from CBS might as well be followed by a beaming up to his home planet.
Truth’s tension between journalistic fact and dramatic fiction never resolves itself, all the way through to a finale that can’t decide if it’s supposed to be dispiriting or uplifting. Vanderbilt has the fast-flying jargon and quick-witted panache of this milieu down cold, though, and even with some of his cast going to waste (Elisabeth Moss’s dialogue could fill a cue card), makes hacking through the confusion and hearsay of this story worthy of attention.
You’ll know if Truth really has done its job if it compels you to ask questions about the history it dramatizes.