First-time director James Vanderbilt brings the true story of the downfall of a celebrated news producer and a legendary anchorman to the screen with admirable intentions in Truth, based on the book by Mary Mapes. Starring Cate Blanchett as CBS News producer Mapes and Robert Redford as Dan Rather, the film skates by largely on the strength of those performances instead of its narrative. Coming, too, in a year when we saw a film about journalism in Spotlight that was strong enough to draw comparisons to All the President's Men, probably the gold standard of that genre, surely does Truth few favors. The end result is a movie that feels less important than it wants the viewer to believe it is, but one which is nonetheless worth exploring a bit deeper.
The subject is a 2004 news story broadcast on the Wednesday edition of CBS news program 60 Minutes about the Air National Guard record of President George W. Bush. Specifically, with less than two months before Bush's re-election bid, the report alleged that the president had been unaccounted for between May 1972 and July 1973 when he should have been serving and during which time the conflict in Vietnam was still ongoing. Those unfamiliar with further specifics to this story are urged to extend their research even beyond the film as it was a fascinating situation to witness when compared with the political attacks Bush's rival John Kerry had to endure about his own military service.
Controversy over the authenticity of certain documents used by 60 Minutes quickly erupted following the story's airing, and both Mapes and Rather ultimately came under heavy scrutiny for what was perceived as insufficient research over the reporting. Truth tells Mapes' side, basically, and Rather, too, has praised the film as getting it right (though CBS, for its part, refused to even air commercials advertising the movie). Vanderbilt, whose previous writing work includes the masterful David Fincher film Zodiac that also concerned a very determined journalist, adapted Mapes' book for the screen.
The film's flaws are a little too clear for my taste, and that's unfortunate considering the potential here for a dynamic effort. Any narrative flow gets hindered by having so much emphasis given to getting the story on the air and then, once it's broadcast at about forty-five minutes into the picture, being unable to sufficiently deal with the corresponding break in momentum. Afterwards we're left with the fallout but much of it's played at far too high of a dramatic pitch. There's unnecessary slow motion, operatic musical interludes, etc. It all makes the moment in question feel way over the top. That level of drama needs to be conveyed via the direction and what occurs on the screen, not through short cuts.
Those are the things that prevent Truth from approaching greatness but it does still often work independent of its weaknesses. Both Blanchett and Redford really get the most from their characters, giving the viewer a clear picture of these very real people whose reputations and jobs were completely on the line. If it's expected that Blanchett will deliver without fail then maybe Redford's really rather masterful work deserves special attention. The iconic actor who built his career playing heroes in a similar mold from one to the next has the tough task of embodying a well-known individual many of us recognize immediately, and that itself feels like a change from the usual type of roles we've seen across his career. Though the Texas accent of Rather's maybe isn't fully there, the speech pattern remarkably resembles the newsman's and Redford also does well with the physical aspect. It's strange to see Redford, particularly at this stage of his career, on screen and still kind of lose track of the fact that you're watching the former Sundance Kid instead of a fully lived-in character. Yet that's exactly what occurs in Truth.
Near the end of the film, Blanchett's Mapes is finishing up her interview at a hearing and she reaches the point where she's unable to hold back the mounting frustration - encapsulating much of what's been going on thematically for the entire movie. It's a scene of the type where actors win awards unless said actors already own two Oscars, are being campaigned and ultimately nominated for a different movie, and don't have to deal with their movie getting essentially buried at release. Most actors, though, could have used such a scene as a springboard to a campaign, it's that good. It's possible to quibble about the accuracy as to Mapes' theory as expressed here - such as, the unmentioned idea that Republican strategists could have leaked the documents with the expectation of capitalizing on just what ended up happening - but the force with which Blanchett plays it is pretty much beyond reproach. Redford is the balance to that ferocity.
The fact that Truth doesn't have a tidy wrap-up like, for example, Spotlight or All the President's Men is actually something of a virtue. The real-life situation that inspired the story remains frustrating and unhappy. People lost their jobs, even their careers, and while you could make an argument that irresponsible journalism was at play there's a sense while watching the film that something far more sinister was the real culprit. Unfortunately, the narrative thrust of the movie is never tight enough and Vanderbilt is unable to successfully tie the potential impact of what occurred into any sense of an overall bigger picture. Still, it's a story and performances easily worthy of your time.
Sony Pictures Classics brings Truth to Blu-ray in the U.S. in a Region A (locked) edition that also includes a Digital HD code.
Picture quality is reasonably good here, with the original 2.40:1 aspect ratio respected on the transfer. Nothing quite pops with grand splendor but everything moves along nicely.
Audio similarly gets by via an English 5.1 DTS-HD MA track that delivers dialogue without issue. An English audio description 5.1 Dolby Digital track is also included. Subtitles are available in English and English for the hearing impaired.
Special features include an audio commentary by writer/director James Vanderbilt and producers Brad Fischer and William Sherak. They cover solid ground on the track, including the lead-up to the production and the ease of forming such a strong supporting cast after getting Blanchett and Redford to be in the picture.
From the included set of six Deleted Scenes (12:11) there's one in particular, with Quaid at a bar, that sheds some necessary light on the motivations behind running the story. It's a scene that probably would've strengthened the final cut.
Featurette "The Reason for Being" (11:32) has interviews with the real-life Mary Mapes and Dan Rather. Another, "The Team" (8:43), is more focused on the cast and crew.
A lengthy Q&A (33:00) with Cate Blanchett, Elisabeth Moss and James Vanderbilt actually doesn't cover an enormous amount of otherwise neglected ground and is instead kind of interested in light, surface-level exploration.
Finally, the film's theatrical trailer (2:06) is included as are previews for other films Infinitely Polar Bear, Labyrinth of Lies, Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Lady in the Van, and Irrational Man.