All the news that's fit to twist
One year after the Gary Webb biopic Kill the Messenger, here comes another preachy, pandering, ripped-from-the-headlines story of old-guard journalists persecuted by the federal government for their doggedness, dammit. Solemn and walnut-stained as though being fitted for a mantle, Truth is less about truth than truthiness. Like Kill the Messenger, it’s more concerned with delivering a finger-pointing, tongue-clucking civics lesson than with anything resembling journalism.
Prolific screenwriter James Vanderbilt (Zodiac and a lot of movies not directed by David Fincher) makes his directorial debut with Truth, a draggy and self-righteous look at the 2004 scandal that ended the careers of CBS anchorman Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett). It’s a worn-out cliché, but Truth feels like a screenwriter’s first film, and Vanderbilt tends to favor windy sermons and bullet-point conversations over visual concision and formal intellect.
As the 2004 election approached, CBS aired a story about the sketchy Texas Air National Guard record of then-President George W. Bush. The segment starred Rather and was produced by Mapes, and even though CBS brass initially celebrated the piece, the story got nitpicked apart by rival networks and right-wing stooges. Almost overnight, the core story of Bush’s semifictional service got overwhelmed by questions about fonts and superscripts, and Mapes and her team found themselves playing defense, both against their critics and against their own network.
Vanderbilt tries to show us the TV news reporting process from inside the fishbowl, but he doesn’t so much walk us through the world as talk us through it. In a typical scene, two of Mapes’ co-workers discuss her father-daughter relationship with Rather, underlining the image of Mapes snuggling up next to Rather on an airplane seat by saying, “Fathers and daughters.” Later, Topher Grace screams several pages of footnotes about Viacom in a crowded office for no particular reason.
In a stellar but largely misused supporting cast, the wonderful Elisabeth Moss gets the most tragically wasted, reduced here to a handful of drippy interjections (“This one meant something!”) and confused expressions. See her in Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth for a much meatier movie role—that film had its share of flaws, but it least it put its heart on its sleeve; there’s nothing up the sleeves of Truth but more speeches.
Redford does a fine job, capturing the Rather cocktail of down-home and distinguished without doing an outright impression, but Blanchett is the real star, playing Mapes as fragile yet defiant, and looking dynamite in a kicky blonde hairdo. Beyond her acting chops, though, Blanchett is a consummate professional, to the point that you can feel her reeling back for extra heat when she’s working with shaky material, and while she’s made worse vehicles watchable, you can definitely feel the strain here. Truth tries to sing a swan song for “old school” journalists and their charming drinking problems, but instead it’s a paean to boomer self-congratulation, an ode to getting the story more or less right.