TruthDecember 10, 2015
For those of us who haven’t grown up watching Dan Rather anchoring the CBS News, his portrayal in Truth is a little hard to swallow. Played by Robert Redford as a secular saint, Rather comes across a beacon of moral purity in the midst of a media swamp. Not only is he the ‘grand old man’ of evening news, he preaches the gospel to the younger generation: “We seek the truth,” he says. “That’s what we do.”
The problem with news is that a story may be true but still not screenable unless the reporter has irrefutable evidence. Two months before the Presidential election of 2004, the team at CBS’s 60 Minutes, who had just dropped a bombshell with the Abu Ghraib revelations, felt they had another scoop. This time documents had come to light which cast doubt on President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard during 1972-73.
It appeared the young Bush had secured his place thanks to family connections, and skipped a large part of the program. If the documents were legitimate it proved Bush had gone AWOL with the connivance of military authorities.
The producer in charge of the story was Mary Mapes, who won awards for her work on Abu Ghraib. She knew the information was explosive and would stir up hostility in the Republican camp. She knew it was essential to authenticate the documents and find witnesses to speak on camera. Truth shows how even the most fastidious fact-checking can be undone by the need to rush a story to air, and perhaps by simple wishful thinking.
Cate Blanchett, who plays Mary Mapes, has said she enjoyed the way James Vanderbilt’s directorial debut “raises more questions than it answers”. It could hardly be otherwise when the facts about Bush’s time in the Air National Guard remain as murky today as they were in 2004. It was the responsibility of the 60 Minutes team to establish their case beyond all reasonable doubt. They failed to do so, and suffered the consequences.
To pursue the story Mapes brings together a crack team consisting of military analyst, Lieutenant Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid); lecturer in journalism, Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss); and young go-getter, Mike Smith (Topher Grace). They spend much of the movie poring over documents and working the phones. Yet as soon as Rather has presented, the attacks begins.
The first criticisms are initially of a technical nature, concerning the existence of a superscript on the typewriters of 1972-73. Then there are doubts cast on the chief source, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), who hasn’t been strictly honest with the reporters. As the controversy keeps escalating, sources recant their original testimony.
CBS deals with the ensuing problem by throwing Mapes and her team under the bus. Rather has to issue an apology on air, while the journalists are investigated by a committee stacked with Republican Party stalwarts.
Mapes and her colleagues are persecuted because they failed to ensure the story was watertight. Their bias against the President seems to be taken for granted by the investigating committee, although none of the journalists express an overt political opinion throughout the film.
As might be expected from a movie based on Mapes’s own account, Vanderbilt portrays the 60 Minutes crew as martyrs to a media environment in which big companies are more concerned with making profits and currying favour with governments than with pursuing truth. This is stated explicitly by Smith during a rant in the news room.
Despite an outstanding performance by Blanchett, and a dependably stolid one by Redford in the lead roles, their heroism feels a little strained. Journalists vote like everyone else, and we can assume the 60 Minutes team had plenty of things to say about George W. Bush that never made it into print or onto the screen.
The more disturbing aspect of the film is the vehemence with which the offended parties go in for the kill, whether it be the trolls who insult Mapes in cyberspace, or an embarrassed CBS management, which makes no attempt to defend their own employees.
At its broadest sweep, Truth is an elegy for investigative journalism, which seems to be a luxury few media outlets can afford nowadays, either through fear of offending powerful vested interests, or simply alienating advertisers. Some viewers may be reminded of the Abbott government’s attacks on the ABC, where trumped-up outrage swiftly turned into a form of intimidation. The 60 Minutes affair provided the blueprint for such aggressive tactics, treating any deviation from the party line as evidence of bias.
It’s an old adage that in times of war, truth is the first casualty, but when politicians treat journalists as adversaries to be eliminated we have entered a new world in which it is irrelevant to ask if something is true or false. Winning is all that counts.
Directed by James Vanderbilt
Written by James Vanderbilt, after a book by Mary Mapes
Starring Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach
Australia/USA, rated M, 125 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 12th December, 2015.