NOTE: Publication of this piece was possible in part due to the generosity of contributors to The MovieBob Patreon.
Reviewing TRUTH is an exercise in asking whether or not it your supposed to weigh a film against its own intentions. That’s not necessarily an unusual place for a critic to be in, but it’s usually in a much more extreme context, i.e. whether you should recommend a film for the laughs when it wasn’t mean to be a comedy but rather a drama staged so ineptly that it becomes hilarious. TRUTH is askew in a more subtle fashion: What’s up onscreen is a top-tier example of an earnest political polemic that keeps insisting on (and seems to genuinely believe in) its own neutrality, putting in a herculean (and effective) effort to rehabilitate subjects that it also insists don’t need rehabilitating in the first place.
For those who don’t remember the story: Right in the midst of the 2004 Presidential Election, CBS News’ 60 Minutes ran a story about renewed allegations that then-President George W. Bush had not only received “special treatment” to get into the National Guard during Vietnam, but hadn’t even been able to behave himself while there. This was something that had been widely assumed (or at least “kicked around”) since before Dubya was even a candidate for President the first time, but now the immensely-respected 60 Minutes and venerable newsman Dan Rather were saying they had documents to back the rumors up.
Soon after, however, a consortium of right-wing “new media” bloggers began circulating serious-sounding claims that the documents were easily-proved forgeries. This was all unfolding at the moment when mainstream popularity of the Fox News Channel was at it’s zenith, and the rest of the U.S. news media was living in mortal fear of being called “biased” by a viewership still residually panicked enough by 9/11 to be swallowing wholesale Fox’s pitch that their GOP propaganda-mongering was actually open-minded centrism (“We Report, You Decide”) that only “looked” right-wing because the rest of the media was so profoundly “left.” So it was unsurprising that CBS made no real effort to defend 60 Minutes’ reporting, instead going directly into apology-mode and ultimately hanging segment-producer Mary Mapes and even Rather himself out to dry.
Robert Redford’s turn as Rather is TRUTH’s big Awards Season showpiece, but the actual film is mainly about Mapes (her book, “Truth & Power,” gets the based-on credit.) Played by Cate Blanchett in full-tilt crusader mode, the story casts Mapes as a well-meaning martyr beset on all sides not so much by conspiracy (though it feints a few times in that direction) than by a disastrous confluence of circumstances – all of which seem poised from the get-go to end with her as a sacrifice to the false gods of objectivity-at-any-cost: CBS’ schedule is clogged by tacky reality specials, narrowing 60 Minutes’ production-window. Their main source is a well-meaning but unreliable codger. Important support-sources can’t keep their own stories straight. And then there’s those bloggers – here cast as an unseen army of pajama-pundits whose ability to fire off scattershot accusations with near-absolute impunity is a deeply unfair advantage over professional journalists with standards (and bosses) to answer to.
It’s admirable, at first, to see a film try to take what seems like a difficult stand (“Yeah, we might’ve fumbled the reporting a bit but it’s obvious the story itself was probably true and besides flawed real-journalism is better than rando-blogosphere journalism”) …but that soon turns out not to be the case. TRUTH is less interested in actually making a case for its protagonists (outside of an overriding clarity that Mapes especially did nothing too terribly wrong) than in lionizing the imperiled institution of serious TV journalism that it decides they represent. What happened to Mapes and Rather is unfortunate, it argues, but that it has (or was used to?) damage The News is a tragedy.
None of which is innately a problem, especially in a terms of the filmmaking: Political/ideological mythmaking is a valid a narrative form as any other, and as mythmaking (which is not the same thing as either lying or fabricating, just so we’re clear) TRUTH is a stellar example of the form. Blanchett embodies the film’s take on Mapes splendidly, while Redford’s Rather isn’t so much imitation (he doesn’t look or sound anything like him) as it is a perfect use of iconography, i.e. what better onscreen-shorthand for “this noteworthy Baby Boomer is worthy of your respect” is there than “oh wow, it’s Robert Redford?” James Vanderbilt’s direction, meanwhile, stays within the classical parameters of the modern biopic while also turning a story of news-office minutiae into something that begins to feel like a thriller.
But that might also be part of the problem; or at least the reason why TRUTH feels like an involving, even heart-pounding winner in the watching but leaves a nagging, questionable aftertaste regardless. This story could work as a righteous polemic (“These heroes could’ve saved us from a second Bush term if only the unholy blogger/corporat-media alliance hadn’t conspired to destroy them!”) or a detached meditation (“We’ll never know the real… TRUTH”) but it can’t be both. So why does it too often feel like it’s trying to be? Why is something so sure of it’s own rightness so frequently making defensive gestures?
That’s where the “Thrilling, but should it be?” issue comes in: The film wants us to be assured that it’s dealing in the cold hard facts, but it wants to be more emotionally-involving than a “mere” procedural; and that involves narrative details like subtext, metaphor and allegory that can’t help but be the opposite of clinical fact-relation. Most egregiously, Vanderbilt’s screenplay can’t resist adding topically-relevant pathos and psychoanalysis to Mapes’ relationships both to the story and to Rather; which is a solid approach for the heroine of a drama with a point to make but undercuts her intended position as a moral fixed-point in the final film.
Specifically, we’re informed that her matter-of-fact declaration that her team can’t be “smacked just for asking questions” is a personal reference for her, having grown up being physically abused for her inquisitive nature by a violent, ultra-conservative father; a detail the film stretches not only to unnecessarily “explain” her devotion to Rather (he’s the Good Dad she never had) but also to pump up her victim/hero stature when Bad Dad re-enters the story by bashing her as a “radical feminist” to the right-wing press. The implication here (Fox News, the bloggers and everyone else who attacked the story are basically of-a-kind to Mapes’ abusive father) is functional but unnecessary: If the thrust of your narrative is that your hero was villified for doing nothing wrong, what are you trying to explain away with an “origin story” and pat psychoanalysis that (frankly) could be easily turned around to make the exact opposite point?
But, again, that’s only really a flaw if we’re taking TRUTH at its word (no, the irony is not lost on me) that it’s not meant to be a Hero’s Journey for an idealized version of Mary Mapes with right-wing New Media as the villain. Taken as precisely that (which, all considered, is what’s ended up onscreen) it’s largely a triumph that works both as a newsroom potboiler and a lament for the good old days (Redford swirls a brandy and laments bygone wonders as naturally as most people draw breath); and the fist-pump righteousness Blanchett invests Mapes’ story with should prove particularly restorative for Progressive audiences: However coincidental, its hard not to think of Hillary Clinton (literally) brushing-off the Benghazi paranoiacs as Blanchett finds herself staring down an “ethics panel” of sneering suits. The question is whether it matters that TRUTH clearly doesn’t think it is (and didn’t intend to be) that kind of movie, and that I don’t have an answer for.