With the build up to this autumn’s presidential election in full swing, and Donald Trump defying political precedent, logic and humanity (he called out the Pope!) en route to what looks like securing the republican nomination, this is a topical time for politically themed drama Truth to land in multiplexes. Its true life tale of the 2004 CBS TV news report that questioned certain aspects of then President George W Bush’s military past, and the fallout that ensued when it was held up to scrutiny, is engaging, maturely composed and assuredly performed, yet undone by a tendency towards painting in white and black when it might have benefited from a little more grey shading.
Cate Blanchett is CBS producer Mary Mapes, who chases down a story about not only Bush’s route into the Texas Air National Guard – and its function as a Vietnam draft hideout – but also his apparent failure to perform his duties, even so much as going AWOL for an entire year in the early seventies. Robert Redford is CBS legend Dan Rather, the respected veteran journalist whose morals are incorruptible, and determination to question everything, always, unwavering. Yet almost as soon as the 60 Minutes segment airs, raising big questions about the favours that were called in and the backs that were patted in order to secure and subsequently obscure Bush’s military misdemeanours, its accuracy and reliability are called into question and so too the professional integrity of those that made it.
It’s a serious film with a bold title, and is certainly keen on ensuring that its intentions and observations are heeded, its poignant moments felt and understood. As the conservatives dissect a factually frail story – the details of 70s typewriters and typeface play a big role here – the liberal newshounds fight to prove their unbiased reporting. Prove that one part of the National Guard story doesn’t hold water and no one will believe any of it, is the plan of attack, and so begins the vicious back and forth as liberals and conservatives clash.
Political motivations are called into question (Mapes is painted variously as a ‘leftie witch’ with vicious feminist intentions), so too the role of independent journalism in a modern day blogosphere of news as infotainment. Indeed, the changing face of the media landscape itself comes under the spotlight much as new media faced off with old in Kevin MacDonald’s State of Play. It is remarkable how a film set in 2004 can already feel like such a period piece, with the reach of social media yet to be fully understood and journos forever glued to phones with cords rather than gleaming handheld cells.
Zodiac scribe James Vanderbilt – who makes an assured directorial debut here – pens some soaring speeches and thoroughly considered arguments though, as Mapes and co. face the music as the corners darken, the jackals circle and corporate influence steps into the sway. And as much as he muses on the bigger ethical questions here, he equally revels in the minutiae of the story (the role of a ‘th’ in a could-have-been-faked memo becomes a dramatic stand-off) and the human and personal impact all the political hollering creates (Mapes reaches for the bottle as the media camps outside her family’s front lawn and even her GOP father chirps up on radio to speak of her man-hating motivations). Refusing to take a conspicuous side is a bold and brave intent, yet it is one Vanderbilt only partly succeeds in pulling off.
He is aided by a string of strong performances as Blanchett gives another one of her frail yet fierce turns as Mapes, and Redford is dignified and inspiring as Rather, played here as a screen hero whose moral compass knows no wrong. However, the rest of the CBS news team are very much relegated to supporting positions; Topher Grace’s young and aspiring reporter gets a stirring diatribe against the role of multimedia conglomerates in shaping the political discourse, but is otherwise background fodder, and no more so than Elizabeth Moss’s Lucy Scott who is largely left by the wayside.
It is all very careful and considered – Vanderbilt never circumnavigates the role that Mapes’ haste to make assumptions and to get the story to air played in her professional downfall – yet despite this, there is never any question over where its political leanings lie. One scene in particular shows Mapes absent mindedly filling her glass of chardonnay to the brim as Bush’s acceptance speech plays in the background – it’s a sour reminder of the powers at play and our personal fallibility, as well as that a little more such murk might have wonderfully muddied the report.