Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Truth



Truth, yet another based-on-true-events film in a year that has been flooded with such films (which has its positive and negative sides), tells the intriguing story of one of the most embarrassing failures in the history of TV journalism. The year is 2004, the U.S. is caught up in election fever, and Bush and Kerry are using TV ads to attack each other’s military records. Mary Mapes, a producer for  60 Minutes (CBS’s flagship primetime news program), has been sitting on a story for years about Bush’s limited service in the Texas National Guard in the early 70’s, including the fact that someone pulled strings to get the wealthy Bush into the Guard so he wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam. When a retired and unwell colonel offers Mapes two documents, copies of memos written by Bush’s commanding officer in 1972, in support of the above, Mapes puts a team together to investigate the big story, working closely with her friend Dan Rather, one of the most respected news anchors in U.S. history. 

(Spoiler alert, though this is a known story)

Truth makes it clear that Mapes and her team of investigators work very hard to verify the authenticity of the documents and the truth of the larger story, tracking down officers who will corroborate the story and be willing to appear on 60 minutes to share their views. At the same time, however, time constraints and Mapes’s conviction that the story is true, cause her to proceed even when some of those looking at the documents question their authenticity. Following the explosive broadcast, the internet is flooded with posts showing that the documents could not be genuine and everything starts to unravel for Mapes and Rather, eventually ending their journalistic careers.

At least one person in the audience watching the film with me thought Truth was an expose of bad leftist journalism, where preconceived ideas about political figures caused journalists to run with a story before it was verified. That one person jumped up in the middle of the theatre about 90 minutes into the film and shouted, at the top of his voice: “Oh, come on!!” before stalking out of the theatre. It was at that point in the film that it became clear that the filmmakers were in no way questioning the truth of the story about Bush, but rather how the obsession with one detail of the story (the authenticity of the documents) could be used to completely derail the larger story of Bush’s service and bring down some of the world’s leading investigative journalists. That person who left the theatre was lucky to leave when he did; he might have had a heart attack if he had watched the last few minutes of the film. For me, Truth is more truthful than the film that person was expecting.

While not a perfect film, I thought Truth did a great job of telling this true story in a compelling and authentic way. Yes, there is evident bias, no doubt because the screenplay (by James Vanderbilt, who also directed the film) was based on a book written by Mapes, but there was a convincing attempt to place some of the blame for the failures on both Mapes and Rather (who are depicted as very ‘human’) while at the same time showing how the big-picture truth can be lost in the process of defending the details. Who knows how many big stories (exposes) have never seen the light of day because of the inability to find sufficient evidence or a sufficient number of people willing to go on record (and possibly sacrificing their careers). Yes, of course evidence should be air-tight before people’s lives are ruined, but to ruin people’s careers because they report an obviously true story without fully verifying some documents is just as messed up. 

Mapes is played by Cate Blanchett, a good choice and she gives a convincing heartfelt performance. Rather is played by Robert Redford, who is much better here than in anything he’s done since All is Lost. He doesn’t really try to be Rather but that makes him even more effective. The smaller roles are all well-acted (by actors like Bruce Greenwood, Elizabeth Moss, Stacy Keach and Dennis Quaid), with a special nod to Topher Grace as Mike Smith. The cinematography is excellent and the score is good. The film’s only major flaw lies in the way its story is presented. Given its subject matter, it should have been more dynamic at appropriate times (I liked the ending), though there is something to be said for understatement. 

I have said before that in my opinion there is no more important profession in our time than investigative journalism. Truth shows us how difficult that profession is at a time when the media is owned by the powerful and money is the primary concern for news programs. This is a truth we need to hear. Truth gets a solid ***+ and may make it to my top ten. My mug is up.

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