Truth: Rather Biased, by David Bax
James Vanderbilt’s disingenuous and insulting new film Truth, about the news story concerning President George W. Bush’s National Guard records that cost Dan Rather his job at CBS embodies the stuff of its title perhaps in deed but not in spirit. It spoonfeeds us only those truths (polls, dates, etc.) that will support its version of events or that will shore up sympathy for its heroes. The film spends most of its first act transparently instructing you on how to feel about the events that are about to transpire with clumsy bits like a monologue about why Bush wouldn’t have become a pilot and a roll call of his other, provable transgressions. Like a friend giving you a long backstory before reluctantly asking a big favor, Truth attempts to cover up the smell of bullshit before it even exists. And, after two hours of distracting us from the real story, it has the nerve to feign grandiosity, weakly gesturing at observations about American journalism that were made with more strength and elegance ten years ago in Good Night, and Good Luck. Truth pretends to stand for the unvarnished virtues of pure journalism while partaking in the very same obfuscation and bias it condemns.
Truth tracks a CBS News story that aired in late 2004, just before Bush would be reelected, in which documents appeared to indicate that, during his time in the National Guard, the President failed to meet the proper training requirements and then had that fact covered up and his records doctored. Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is the producer and serves as the film’s lead, first through the gathering of information (including the very solid and likely possibility that Bush had strings pulled to get him into the Guard and out of the way of the draft in the first place), the airing of the story and, almost immediately thereafter, the public dismantling of the veracity of those documents, which would result in Mapes being removed from CBS, along with Rather (Robert Redford), Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid).
That’s a strong ensemble, to be sure, but Truth appears to have no idea how to be an ensemble type of movie. The film introduces these players in a lame and familiar “assemble the team” montage and then never commits to treating them like a team at all. Grace and Quaid had more chemistry as rivals in 2004’s In Good Company and Truth’s forced attempts at cross-generational banter between them are embarrassing. Moss, on the other hand, disappears from the film for so long and after such a weak start that it’s a genuine surprise when she suddenly shows her face again.
These are actors of great talent but they are to a person unable to shine here. That’s because the screenplay is so blunt and obtuse that they bounce off of it like a spacecraft trying to reenter the atmosphere at the wrong speed and angle. Most of their dialogue is either needless exposition or shameless soapboxing. When Grace starts manically rattling off facts just like his character in Traffic, the only thing accomplished is reminding the audience how much better a movie Traffic is. Somehow, the tertiary characters fare even worse, especially the antagonists. Dermot Mulroney, as the conservative head of the investigative committee formed by CBS, behaves like an angry pitbull to the point that it becomes humorous.
Even so, Mulroney’s performance is the closest the movie comes to having any real edge. Truth’s chief aim appears to be restoring the credibility and respect of Rather and, as such, is not interested in much that might be sharp or uncomfortable. The whole thing is sanded down. Even when Mapes reads online comments about herself at the height of the scandal, it’s hard not to smirk. Given what we know about how vicious the harassment of female journalists online can be – even when they haven’t botched their research – a couple invocations of the word “bitch” fails to boil the blood in the way Vanderbilt apparently intends.
What transpired in the reporting, broadcasting and felling of this story really ought to be a good movie. The very human behavior of confirmation bias could be explored sympathetically (but not, as this movie handles it, defensively). Sadly, Vanderbilt is not interested in psychology, except when he offensively compares those who criticize Mapes’ job performance to her abusive father. No, Truth would rather pay lip service to big ideals like the commercialization of the news as a means of distracting us from the real truth, which is that a group of well-meaning people took what started as a damn good story and then flew it up too close to the sun.