‘Truth’ Review: Cate Blanchett Brings Greatness to a Flawed Journalism Drama
In September of 2004, CBS’s 60 Minutes II aired one of the show’s most controversial episodes, which questioned the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. But something as small as the tiny superscript font on a set of unverified documents is what threw the entire report under scrutiny and led to the discrediting of an impassioned journalist.
From first-time director James Vanderbilt, best known for writing Zodiac and The Amazing Spider-Man, Truth plays like a dramatic reading of Wikipedia pages about the CBS report that ended 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes’ career with the network and, likely, led to anchor Dan Rather’s retirement. But luckily, a not-so-great journalism drama is saved by the talents of its leading cast, with Cate Blanchett as the tenacious Mapes alongside Robert Redford as Rather.
Adapted from Mapes’ 2005 book defending her work on the CBS segment, Vanderbilt’s film takes a one-sided look at the events leading up to, and following, the media scandal. The film opens on Mapes’ finishing edits on the Abu Ghraib prison abuse report that eventually won her and Rather a Peabody Award. We see her home life, where she shirks off late-night walks with her doting husband (John Benjamin Hickey) to finish work, but makes some time for her young son to interview her on his personal camcorder. We watch her and her team, comprised of Topher Grace’s reporter Mike Smith, Dennis Quaid’s Colonel Roger Charles and a wasted Elisabeth Moss in an insignificant role as a professor, flip through piles of paperwork to find the missing information in Bush’s military files.
Eventually, their story starts to gain evidence when retired Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) anonymously gives Mapes a set of military letters that reveal then-President Bush may have not fulfilled his full military duty from 1968-1973. Plagued by a pushed up air date for the segment, Mapes and her team rush to get the photocopied, non-original documents verified by typewriter experts. While there are some lingering doubts, the 60 Minutes II segment moves forward as Rather presents the evidence on air, months before the 2004 Presidential Election. But their victory soon crumbles as the documents, which were only a portion of the report, become the sole focus. Other networks begin questioning their legitimacy, debating whether or not the letters could’ve been written on a typewriter from the late ‘60s, or if they were faked on Microsoft Word. After everything, it’s the tiny “th” superscript following numerical dates that elicit speculation and signal the fall of Mapes’ career.
There are many moments of Truth that turn what could be tautly constructed scenes into a heavy-handed melodrama. For one, Brian Tyler’s mismatched score feels like something out of The Dark Knight and Oceans 11, forcefully swelling in moments that are better left understated and bouncing with gusto at others that come off silly. Vanderbilt’s script also relies too heavily on a continually referenced childhood abuse storyline surrounding Mapes’ alcoholic father. The film uses Maples’ inability to fight back against her father as the reason behind her career choice to stand up to oppressive powers. This only belittles the courage Blanchett shows in Mapes by hammering home the notion that no matter how valiant a woman’s work may be, there’s still a weakness at her core, a daddy issue, holding her back from success. This mawkish plot point gets doused in an extra serving of cheese in the film’s final act when Mapes has to choose whether she’ll fight against the legal panel hired to investigate her, and when she has to face her father over the phone. Luckily though, these clumsily-written scenes are handled with the utmost eloquence by Blanchett, an actress always capable of turning a ripped garment into a stunning gown.
Truth undoubtedly pales in comparison to this year’s real journalistic champion, the impeccably executed Spotlight. That has little to do with the fact that one is a story of triumph while the other was an unfortunate failure: The Boston Globe reporters depicted in Spotlight were able to bring attention to the Catholic church’s sexual abuse scandal, but Mapes and Rathers’ reporting made little impact on the reelection of Bush. Vanderbilt’s film is more so hurt by his edifying script that opts for sentimentalism over engrossing, focused drama. But when Truth falters, it’s Blanchett’s unyielding, captivating force that keeps it alive, and what may help earn it some awards recognition.