James Vanderbilt’s Truth revisits one of the many brouhahas of the George W. Bush years, the political scapegoating of CBS News veterans Dan Rather (played by Robert Redford) and Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) in 2004, over a 60 Minutes piece about Bush’s career in the Texas and Alabama National Guards in the early 1970s. But where, for instance, Bridge of Spies portrays government subterfuge as a surmountable obstacle, the tone of Truth — adapted by director Vanderbilt from Mapes’ book — is dismal and defeated, as if truth itself has been banished.
Redford does a particularly fine job imitating the cadences of Rather’s vocal delivery, and he etches Rather’s dilemma with dignified restraint. Rather was the last of the “trustworthy” anchors in TV news, the figurehead of ostensible integrity. But the real star of Truth is Blanchett’s combative producer Mapes, hounded out of her job by an unseen hand for daring to imply, during a presidential election year, that POTUS used his family’s influence to essentially shirk his military duty during the Vietnam war. Resistance to this insolent reportage reverberates from the military establishment all the way down to a bull semen market in Texas. While being hounded by her bosses and the president’s men, Mapes gets grilled even at home, by her young son. She finally responds to her inquisitors in a forcefully delivered vindication speech, right before they hang her.
The movie not only raises questions about Bush, but about chicken-hearted CBS and broadcast news media in general. Maybe that’s what makes the film, well acted and incisively written as it is, such an ordeal to sit through, even for news junkies. Its implications about American citizens’ attentions spans are disheartening as well. Evidently, Bush was additionally peeved about the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, and Mapes paid the price (Rather is now back on the air; Mapes, as noted in the epilogue, has been out of broadcasting ever since). “They don’t get to smack us just for asking the fucking question,” howls Mapes. But they do. Orwell strikes again.