Wednesday night’s swanky Midtown screening of newsroom drama “Truth” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art lured out a few impressive guests.
“I literally heard someone say, as I walked in back there, ‘Forget Robert Redford, forget Cate Blanchett — Dan Rather is here!” announced Sony Classic Pictures Co-President and Co-Founder Michael Barker to the well-heeled set in his welcoming address.
Redford, who portrays the venerable CBS news anchor (who stepped down in the fiery aftermath of a 2004 “60 Minutes” report produced by Mary Mapes — which investigated then-President George W. Bush’s military service, and was later rebuked for employing questionable documents), shared similar esteem about Rather.
“I met him back in the ‘70s out West during a story for ‘60 Minutes’ about an environmental issue, but I hadn’t seen him since,” a spirited Redford recalled on the red carpet. “When I was getting ready to do the film, I called him and I said, ‘is there anything you want to tell me?’ And he said, ‘Yes, it’s about loyalty. Loyalty between me and Mary. Loyalty to my bosses.’ Unfortunately,” Redford declared, “that loyalty in the end wasn’t returned. I just thought that was a very key thing, loyalty, because it’s rare, and it’s very valuable.”
To Redford, the fast-paced drama — based on Mapes’ memoir, “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power” — is truly about “the junction of Corporate America, journalism and the media, and the tension between all of them.” What did he glean from it? “I’ve learned that journalism is essential, valuable, and we have to do everything we can to keep it alive and well. And very often, it comes under threat when it goes after somebody that doesn’t want the story told.”
In this case, that “somebody” was the single most powerful individual in the country, as the documents insinuate that Bush exploited family connections to become a Texas Air National Guard and avoid serving in Vietnam, and that he also went AWOL for over a year of that service — facts which the film implies might have changed the public’s perception during a very tight initial election year. “What is the story?” posed Redford, “We never found out, so this, 15 years later, is the chance to really tell the story fully and let the public see it and judge for themselves.”
Redford’s costar Blanchett, who plays dogged journalist and producer Mapes — who pieced together the bold “60 Minutes” segment that led to her termination and professional downfall (despite winning a Peabody Award for her investigation into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, following her CBS departure) — also spoke to the controversial film’s inconclusiveness. “In the end, it doesn’t answer questions; I think it asks more than it answers, which I think is great,” said the svelte Australian star, whose charged performance comes on the heels of her critically acclaimed work in “Carol.”
In her own show of loyalty, Blanchett lauded Redford. “I was thrilled when Bob Redford come on board, because I knew that relationship was pivotal to making the film work,” she said, though making sure to leave her own views out of it. “I actually don’t think about myself at all; I don’t think about my politics, I don’t think about my morality, whenever I’m playing a character,” she expressed. “I just think about, what’s the character, and what’s the story, and is the story worth an audience’s time? Which I think this one is.”
And while “Truth” doesn’t represent her views, it likewise doesn’t express those of first-time director James Vanderbilt (screenwriter of “Zodiac” and “The Amazing Spider-Man”). “Jamie had written an extraordinary factual rendition of what went on in that very intense number of months, but it’s told from Mary’s perspective,” Blanchett noted. “She wrote a very heated memoir, I think, not having had her day with the independent panel. Perhaps it was a bit of fait accompli.”
But to Mapes, another celebrated guest at the Cinema Society and Giorgio Armani-sponsored screening, the film was indeed quite accurate. “It is very close to my truth, and Dan’s truth, and the truth for those people who worked on the story with me,” she said.
Does Mapes regret producing that plagued segment that prematurely truncated her news career? “We did the very best job that we could, journalistically and ethically,” she maintained, noting that she’d vetted the doubted documents 16 different ways. “I don’t know what more we would have done other than just throw them in a waste basket!” And even if they were fudged by someone with an anti-Bush agenda, she believes they served a purpose. “Because I had them and the information in them, I was able to go to others who were in the Guard at the time, who confirmed the content. If I had not gotten the documents, I would not have been able to do that, because George W. Bush’s supporters had put a lock on all of the information, and they had for years. So, for me, it was a breakthrough on a story that I thought was hugely important.”
Were these weighty documents ever definitively deemed fraudulent? “I don’t know, because I can’t authenticate them, I can’t test the ink, I can’t test the paper. I can test the information in them: and the information was good,” she said, expressing that issues deeper than paperwork validity were at hand.
“The heart of the story was about what happened during the Vietnam War in terms of class privilege, and who fought and who got to stay home. That’s what the story’s about,” she clarified. “And one of the reasons I think we had such a fight in this country about it, is that we’ve never examined that entire episode. We’ve never been honest about it.”
Does she believe, to this day, that Bush was truly guilty? “He shirked his responsibility to tell the truth about what he did,” Mapes professed. “His family got him into the Guard through connections. Because of those connections, he disappeared for a year and didn’t show up, and then he didn’t tell the truth about it.”
“It’s such an interesting story, because it comes at such an interesting time in our country in terms of where we were,” said screenwriter-director Vanderbilt, who calls journalism “the road not taken” for him, and who wanted to first-time direct something that mattered to him. “I grew up with the ‘voice of god’ journalism, of the guys in those anchors chairs — that’s where you got your news from. And now, we’re in a place where I have access to 10,000 different voices in my pocket on my phone,” he said. “It was the first time the internet really sort of rose up and changed a story in a dramatic way. And it’s speed that, now, we live with every day. My friend refers to it as a 24-second news cycle, and this was one of those moments that really changed things.”
To secure his dream cast, Vanderbilt wrote Redford a letter (“I talked about how much ‘All the President’s Men’ meant to me growing up… and I thought the idea of playing this role and telling another journalism story at this point in his career was sort of an amazing thing”). He sought out “consummate actress” Blanchett — praised by costar John Benjamin Hickey for her “powers of concentration” — because of what he termed her full toolbox. “She can play strong and smart and funny, and she can play vulnerable and emotional, and I wanted all of those things in the character of Mary.”
Support for Mapes and his project — which also stars Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Dermot Mulroney and Dennis Quaid — came by way of guests including Rosanna Scotto, Kelly Rutherford, Taylor Hackford, Andy Cohen, Carson Kressley, the film’s producer Brett Ratner and chummy friends Damian Lewis and Alysia Reiner, all of whom mingled over plates of fish and truffle risotto at a chic after-party above the Armani boutique at Armani Ristorante.
But that support isn’t unanimous. “Listen, there’s no world where CBS goes, ‘Hey, thank you so much for making this movie! We’re really excited that you’re going to do this,’” responded Vanderbilt to the network’s clear criticism. “They’re going to say what they’re going to say. What I’m excited for, is for people to see the film and enjoy it and make up their own minds.”
“Truth” opens in theaters on Oct. 16.