James Vanderbilt, the director of “Truth,” says he hasn’t concluded whether the memos at the heart of the controversy over a 2004 “60 Minutes II” piece on George W. Bush’s National Guard service were real or fake.
“I don’t know, and that is one of the fascinating things, is the unknowability of that,” he tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM, adding that at the core of the movie as well as “Zodiac,” which he wrote, “is sort of this unknowable mystery.”
“We call the movie ‘Truth’ not because it’s like, ‘Here is the truth everybody.’ We call the movie ‘Truth’ because it is the one thing everybody is trying to get to, and it is elusive and tricky and it can be dangerous and you can sort of go down the rabbit hole and whirlpool of it and crash along the rocks. But it is something I think is important, and important for people to strive to get to.”
The movie tells of what happened when the segment’s producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and reporter, then-CBS News anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford), went with the story on Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam War. One of the bombshells of the report was two memos from Bush’s commanding officer, Jerry Killian, in which he was critical of Bush for not showing up for key aspects of his military service. But soon after the story was aired, conservative websites questioned the authenticity of the memos. After defending its reporting for a couple of weeks, Rather repudiated the memos and CBS News president Andrew Heyward said the network could not prove that they were authentic.
CBS appointed an outside panel to investigate the incident, and while they could not prove or disprove the authenticity of the memos, they found fault with the reporting process, including failing to fully establish how their source obtained them. The man who gave them to Mapes was Bill Burkett, a former officer in the Texas Air National Guard. In fact, Burkett’s story changed after the segment aired.
The movie shows how Mapes’ team tried to double source the content of the memos and not just rely on Burkett’s word. “They felt they had it. They would not have run it if they didn’t feel they had it,” Vanderbilt says.
But he also suggests that Burkett can’t just be dismissed. “There is not a whistleblower who doesn’t have some kind of an agenda. There is no whistleblower who doesn’t have some version of anger or ax to grind … If you want to disqualify a whistleblower or source for that, you are going to have to pretty much disqualify a whistleblower on anything.”
In one scene, freelance journalist Michael Smith (Topher Grace), who worked on the story, suggests that CBS News backed down out of fear that it would offend the Bush administration at a time when it was seeking favorable broadcast regulation in Washington. The network has been critical of the movie. But Vanderbilt notes that while Smith “really believes” that the network caved to pressure, the movie also shows “60 Minutes II” executive producer Josh Howard (David Lyons) rebutting Smith’s diatribe. “Yeah, sure, so we’re all evil. That’s how it works,” Howard says.
“What I love about this story is there are so many points of view in it,” Vanderbilt says. “There’s so much conversation and argument about different points of view. We tried to bake all that stuff in there.”
Vanderbilt also talks here about why he was drawn to what is essentially a “process movie.”
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Variety’s “PopPolitics,” hosted by Ted Johnson, airs Thursdays at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand.