Toronto Film Review: ‘Truth’

Truth TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford star in James Vanderbilt's crisp and fastidious account of the Killian documents affair.

The keenly focused intelligence and low-boil intensity that James Vanderbilt demonstrated in his screenplay for “Zodiac” are on impressive display in “Truth,” a portentously titled but duly absorbing, blow-by-blow account of the “Memogate” controversy that shamed CBS News, ended Dan Rather’s career as the network’s anchorman, and became a chastening historical footnote to the re-election of President George W. Bush. As Vanderbilt’s crisp, polished directorial debut takes pains to remind us, it also led to the downfall of “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes, cast here as the fierce, embattled heroine of a stomach-knotting newsroom thriller that plays like both a companion piece and a counterpoint to the more edifying “Spotlight”: It’s the feel-bad journalism movie of the year, a despairing last gasp for an era when substance mattered more than scandal. Complex, incisive and high-minded, sometimes to a fault, the Oct. 16 Sony Classics release should spin its juicy subject matter and lead turns by Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford into a solid commercial showing during another noisy election season; still, there remains a somewhat too-tidy fastidiousness to the picture that will keep it securely in the “pretty good” tier of 2015 prestige releases.

Introduced hiring a lawyer who will represent her during an internal investigation that CBS is conducting, Mapes initially comes across as a figure only moderately less wired and desperate than the Xanax-popping socialite Blanchett played in “Blue Jasmine.” It’s a slightly unflattering introduction in a picture that is otherwise fairly transparent about mounting a cinematic vindication of sorts for Mapes, whose 2005 book, “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power,” provided the foundation for Vanderbilt’s screenplay. In short order, the film flashes back to April 2004, with the producer in her “60 Minutes” prime — a widely respected and accomplished figure in her field whose long-running collaboration with Rather (Redford) has just enjoyed a career peak with their groundbreaking report on Abu Ghraib. As Mapes herself notes with more objectivity than ego, their work is “the gold standard,” a bastion of investigative rigor in an industry that devotes less and less time and resources to serious news gathering.

Which is not to say that Mapes doesn’t enjoy sinking her teeth into the latest “juicy piece of brisket” that’s landed in her inbox, a tip concerning alleged links between Bush and the bin Laden family. The lead goes nowhere, but at a key moment in the presidential campaign, with the swiftboating of John Kerry under way, it does trigger a productive inquiry into Bush’s own military record — specifically, the suspicion that he used his family connections to dodge Vietnam and land a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard in 1968, a favor courtesy of the state’s then-lieutenant governor, Ben Barnes (Philip Quast). But the evasions may have gone even deeper, on the evidence of six documents that have recently come to light, and which appear to have been written in 1972-73 by Bush’s commander, the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian; collectively, they make the damning claim that Bush’s service was spotty to nonexistent, as he never showed up for his physical or fulfilled any of his obligations as an officer.

Determined to break the story early, not only to beat the competition but also to avoid any sense of an “October surprise,” Mapes assembles a sterling team of investigators and researchers, who are swiftly introduced with heist-crew flair: freelancer Mike Smith (Topher Grace), who’s been following the Bush/National Guard story for some time; Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), a Vietnam vet serving as a consultant; and journalism professor Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss). Vanderbilt’s multilayered script settles easily into the even-keeled procedural style of “Zodiac” as the team sets out to authenticate the documents, calling in different experts to study Killian’s signature and (crucially) the text of the memos, which would have to have been produced on a ’70s-era mechanical typewriter.

Even as it clues us in to potential oversights and missteps, “Truth” paints its fact finders in the most scrupulous light possible: They’re well aware that the outcome of their reporting could influence the election (with Kerry leading the polls by a slim margin), and therefore that much more intent on ensuring that their story is airtight. And it seems to be, especially after Mapes scores an over-the-phone confirmation of the documents’ veracity from Killian’s superior, in a scene that Vanderbilt shoots in a riveting single take, the camera locking Mapes in its sights while she pins down her source. Rather delivers the story with his usual stentorian authority, and Mapes and her team enjoy a fleeting sense of accomplishment — before the story is picked up and immediately challenged by conservative bloggers and, more importantly, other major news outlets, who quickly latch on to the suspicion that something major has slipped through the cracks.

If the film’s emotional temperature inevitably rises several degrees in the second act, editor Richard Francis-Bruce maintains an unwavering, locked-down focus, even as Mapes and her team are slowly raked over the coals. First come alarming charges that the memos could easily have been fabricated on a computer; then the inevitable loss of confidence from their CBS News higher-ups Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood) and Betsy West (Rachael Blake); and finally, a startling admission that, had it come to light earlier, would surely have kept the story off the air. But what this thoughtful, slippery film leaves us to consider is that the unraveling of one chain of evidence hardly amounts to a refutation of the larger story, which was promptly buried in an avalanche of public disgrace — some of it piled on by a network that realized it might be in its best corporate interests (and those of its parent company, Viacom) to play nice with the incumbent and future administration.

Given that it’s become a popular awards-season bloodsport to challenge prestige docudramas and biopics on factual grounds, a movie called “Truth,” implicitly defending a group of journalists who were accused of falling short of that standard, would seem to be marching into the fray with a giant “Debunk Me” sign on its back. It’s a credit to Vanderbilt that despite his measured and exacting tone, he never lapses into a posture of objectivity: His movie surveys Bush’s legacy with withering restraint, openly mourns missed opportunities to derail his presidency, and is at times overly fond of stuffing its own opinions into its characters’ mouths — as when Grace’s Smith lets loose a stream of invective against “60 Minutes II” exec producer Josh Howard (David Lyons) for so readily hanging his employees out to dry.

And in the end, to a degree that will strike detractors as excessively soft and sympathetic, “Truth” is clearly and unapologetically on Mary Mapes’ side. Really, given the movie’s choice of leading lady, it could scarcely be otherwise. Suffering only from a measure of familiarity when set beside the actress’s other work, Blanchett’s performance is forceful yet delicately shaded, and she renders Mapes with admirable complexity: We see a hard-working wife and mother who struggles to find time with her supportive husband (John Benjamin Hickey) and young son, but also a tough-as-nails producer whose excitement outstripped her attention to detail at one crucial moment. She is, too, a successful career woman frequently accused of harboring a radical feminist agenda and/or allowing her liberal politics (which is to say, her emotions) to interfere with her professional distance — a charge that Vanderbilt allows Mapes to answer with blistering eloquence in one of his most pointedly written and directed scenes.

The film also gives us a few dribbles of emotional backstory regarding Mapes’ difficult relationship with her cruelly abusive father, which played a formative role in her professional development (“I don’t like bullies”) and also led her to form a sort of surrogate daughter-father bond with Rather. Redford, who bears a solid resemblance to Rather but not quite enough to make you forget whom you’re watching, plays the veteran newsman with easy gravitas, inner strength and a gentle paternal twinkle, with little display of the anger and volatility for which he was often known over the course of his storied career. More than a decade after leaving CBS News, Rather gets a touching, valedictory sendoff here, in a sequence that reveals the film’s intentions a bit too baldly while overdosing on Brian Tyler’s otherwise pulsingly effective score.

Vanderbilt’s filmmaking is as clean and unshowy as his scripting, and he demonstrates superb instincts with actors; notwithstanding the sometimes-distracting starriness of his two leads, “Truth” is more than a match for “Spotlight” in showcasing an ensemble that feels impeccably cast down to the smallest role. Grace and Quaid relax nicely into a more collegial rapport than they shared in “In Good Company” (2004); Moss makes the most of her too-few scenes as an intrepid reporter thrilled to be on the case, and Greenwood, Lyons and Blake all strike sharp, memorable notes as CBS heavyweights forced into damage-control mode. Stacy Keach is at once pitiable and exasperating as Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, the National Guard veteran who furnishes the faulty smoking gun, and as his wife, Noni Hazlehurst has one blazing, Beatrice-Straight-in-“Network”-caliber scene in which she takes Mapes and her team to task for trying to shift the blame. “You don’t care,” she lashes out, even if this skilled and compelling dramatization makes clear that the truth of the matter is, as always, more complicated than it appears.

Toronto Film Review: ‘Truth’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 12, 2015. Running time: 121 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Ratpac Entertainment presentation, in association with Echo Lake Entertainment and Blue Lake Media Fund, of a Mythology Entertainment production, in association with Dirty Films. Produced by Bradley J. Fischer, William Sherak, James Vanderbilt, Brett Ratner, Doug Mankoff, Andrew Spaulding. Executive producers, Mikkel Bondesen, James Packer, Neil Tabatznik, Steven Silver, Antonia Barnard.

Crew

Directed, written by James Vanderbilt, based on “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power” by Mary Mapes. Camera (color, widescreen), Mandy Walker; editor, Richard Francis-Bruce; music, Brian Tyler; production designer, Fiona Crombie; art director, Fiona Donovan; set decorator, Glen W. Johnson; costume designer, Amanda Neal; sound, David Lee; assistant director, Steve E. Andrews; casting, John Papsidera, Nikki Barrett.

With

Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, John Benjamin Hickey, Dermot Mulroney, Dennis Quaid.

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  1. Hubert I. Flomenhoft, D.Sc. says:

    Unfortunately, this is not the only time that Dan Rather demonstrated a lack of professional responsibility. I recall an interview he conducted with Professor Ted Postol of M.I.T., who has made a career of denigrating the PATRIOT missile system. Postol has made some valid points, but has presented his views with a strong element of personal exhibitionism. Rather made no attempt to dig into the details of Postol’s arguments, but simply tossed him “softball” questions to give Postol a platform for his propaganda.

  2. Presley McCall says:

    Yes: we can debate the authenticity of the memos, but let’s talk about why an entire story was buried based off one piece of disputed evidence.

    The entire story questioning Bush’s time in military was buried by CBS’s parent company, Viacom. The Bush Administration had previously rewarded Viacom with tax exemptions and other monetary gain, which was the motivating force behind shutting down these allegations against the president. The report CBS posted was written by a third-party company hired by Viacom in support of Bush.

    The corporate interest vested in CBS through their parent, Viacom, incentivized the burial of an otherwise newsworthy line of questioning regarding Bush’s whereabouts in the year of 72-73 in which he supposedly served his country, without documented record.

  3. Phred says:

    Clearly a cheap propaganda piece to deflect the very real corruption behind the activities of Hillary Clinton. Rather was, and is, a pathological liar, and now we can add this movie to the list of corrupt philistines of Hollywood Babylon. The same old strategies by the same depraved people. It’s all too tiresome.

    • Domanion says:

      So, any attack on a Republican (Bush) is corrupt, but any attack on a Democrat (Clinton) is just. I fear the narrow-minded, totalitarian country you would have us live in.

  4. Judith says:

    I don’t think I will ever be able to view anyone involved in this farce the same way again. This is a Soviet style attempt at recreating history at its most transparent. I pity those who seem to believe this could possibly be true and gives this poor deluded woman a platform to further expose herself for the wretched propagandist that she is.

    CBS has the independent report of this event available online. Anyone can access it to find out the truth, pun intended.

    • Domanion says:

      “Soviet-style?” A Soviet-style attempt at recreating history would be your refusal to permit the broadcast of anything you disagreed with. Both republicans and democrats have broadcast lies and truth. It’s up to you and me and evaluate whether it be true or not. That’s not Soviet . . . that’s American.

    • kenjimoto says:

      You really have no idea what Soviet-style anything is, do you?

  5. Not to mention that Redford is an admitted friend of Rather (who to this day insists that the faked document is real). This movie was going to be made one way, with one opinion, regardless of the Truth.

    • Domanion says:

      And Bush’s friends have defended him. So what? Of course the movie is going to have one opinion. The filmmaker is an American, like us, and he or she has an opinion. It’s up to you and me to intelligently evaluate it. Stop being so threatened by freedom of speech.

  6. eric says:

    How old are you kid? Incredibly sophomoric and out of touch review. Rather, Redford and Mapes really needed to stay under their rocks for a few more years before rolling out this bit of dubious storytelling. A quick read around the internet is not buying it yet Liberal film crits are trying to push it as a Woodward Bernstein saga. The arrogant title reeks of Orwellian dystopia. Sorry, comments are overwhelmingly negative. Bottom line, it does not matter what your party affiliation may be, these “journalists” attempted to slander a sitting Prez with false documents and for anyone to defend them shows nothing more than a deep cynicism for objective truth, my side, right or wrong. Disturbing.

    • kenjimoto says:

      Your distaste for democracy, a free press, and commenting on a movie you’ve actually seen is duly noted. But as long as Matt Drudge is happy, that’s all that matters.

  7. Republicans Don't Learn From Their Mistakes They Repeat Them says:

    Does this mean George W. Bush won’t be attending any military reunions with all the buddies he made during his years of service?

  8. Dan Rather, Robert Redford and Hollywood is Stuck on Stupid. Rather, also Stuck in the 1960’s and early 1070’s, is so,so desperate for another Watergate, even if its concocted.

  9. Bill Adams says:

    You really shouldn’t throw around words like “fastidious” and “scrupulous” if you haven’t even read the CBS report, which fastidiously and scrupulously details Mapes’s rush to judgment with obviously forged documents.

  10. Bob Wilke says:

    In reality, “Truth” would have been better named “B.S.”

  11. jsm1963 says:

    You’ll have to do better than the Weekly Standard.

  12. Bob b says:

    Somehow, Pravda does seem the correct name for this movie.

  13. Bill B. says:

    I had high hopes for this, but if this is a typical response, It’s very disappointing. These posts are getting weird. Seems most are reviews of reviews.

  14. justin chang is reviewing a movie, not trying to rewrite history. And he’s doing it under a tight deadline. But referencing the “Zodiac” screenplay credited to Vanderbilt is shaky. Director David Fincher has always said he tossed Vanderbilt’s draft and started over with another writer.

    • Goodbyenoway says:

      No, he’s reviewing a movie that is an attempt to re-write history and, therefore, as a reviewer has an obligation to tell us the factual situation. He fails to do that.

      • Domanion says:

        So anything you disagree with is the re-writing of history. I’d rather have the option to review what’s presented before I automatically make that decision. If, indeed, Dan Rather was treated unfairly, I believe he, or his supports have the right to present what they were not allowed to present in other forums; the same right as George Bush’s supporters have to tell his story. I was republican until George Bush and 9/11. The fearful reaction of many Americans by going on a liberal democrat witch hunt made me deeply disrespect that party.

      • Goodbyenoway says:

        It has nothing to do with whether or not I disagree with it or not. It’s about facts and changing facts/history to suit an agenda. I’m not okay with that. This film doesn’t present an opinion, it presents lies as truth. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that’s wrong. I didn’t vote for Bush but I found the lack of journalistic standards in this CBS report appalling. This film presents that as heroic. I find that disgusting. It would be like making a film about Watergate and making Richard Nixon the hero. Would you be okay with that?

      • eric says:

        In essence he is a shill for the Party, well stated.

  15. Amerigo Chattin says:

    Orwell on steroids. A movie called “Truth” created for the singular purpose of defending a story based on VERY, VERY OBVIOUS, badly-forged documents. Wanna know why Trump is all the rage and the public hates the media? This movie and this review are Exhibits A and B.

  16. BillUSA says:

    Ooh, can’t wait to miss it.

  17. anonymous conservative says:

    Although I am from New York, I have always been skeptical of the stereotype of Hollywood as full of self-involved airheads who never open a book. But this review fits the type. Didn’t you bother to read up on this before you saw the movie about it? The documents were fake. The attempts to claim otherwise were pathetic lies or delusion. CBS wrote a long report and put it on the internet. I really doubt the good faith of the people who made this movie – are they trying to brainwash the public with some liberal account of history? Or are they just too dumb to read?

  18. stevenkovacs says:

    Redford shines in the twilight of his rich, accomplished career.

  19. Goodbyenoway says:

    In other words, a film called Truth is filled with lies. What a surprise. It’s been well documented that Mapes and Rather wanted a “gotcha” story so they ignored journalistic standards to produce one. And they might have gotten away with it, except we had entered the Internet age where almost anyone at home could check the facts and documents. That’s what happened and the story fell apart. That would make an interesting movie rather then this attempt to make these scumbags look like they were doing something noble.

    • They were doing something Noble. The fact is the lazy, complacent, corporate media wanted to ignore the wrongdoings of the Bush/Cheney Crime Family time and time again. You could even start with Bush’s insider trading, selling his Harken stock just days before the company went belly up. You can go on to Iraq, and the concocted WMD b.s. You can add the outing of a CIA agent as a retaliation for having their Iraq Adventure exposed for what it is. You can talk about fact checking all you want, but the corporate media never once pushed these stories to the forefront, even when the facts were well known and ignored time and time and time again. They ignored it. And nothing changes the fact that these criminals dragged John Kerry through the Mud and ignored the fact that at the same time Bush was personally keeping the liquor industry in business while flying missions protecting the Texas coastline from what? And the fact that he jumped over more worthy candidates with better and more ability to get into that position tells anybody anything they want to know.

      Yes, let’s go on and on about an act of fellatio in the White House, and ignore completely the real criminals of the Bush/Cheney regime.

      • jsm1963 says:

        @eric Bush’s fault has lost a lot of its steam over the years? Hardly.

      • eric says:

        Evasive avoid the issue comments like this are the only defense regarding this hit piece attempting to keep the lie alive.. George Bush’s fault has lost a lot of its steam over the years Rip Van Winkle.

      • Bob Wilke says:

        Wow, let me guess, you’re a Democrat but you consider yourself to be very objective.

      • jsm1963 says:

        @BillUSA The current administration’s appalling disregard for ethics? Just because you say it doesn’t make it so. You’re going to say this after Karl Rove, John Yoo and Alberto Gonzalez? You really have to provide more details.

      • BillUSA says:

        While we’re at it, let’s also overlook the current Administration’s appalling disregard for ethics as we take the default lefty opinion that the ONLY corrupt politicians out there dwell on the right.

      • GKN says:

        Thank you, Joe. Well said. And Goodbye below, you could actually READ sometimes instead of perpetually basking in your Fox news wish world.

      • Goodbyenoway says:

        Get off the mushrooms, come out of mommy’s basement, take a bath,and rejoin the real world. Also, I’m sure a doctor could help you with your fantastical Bush Cheney derangement syndrome.

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