Mistakes happen. From an outsider’s perspective, they can be identified in a way that may not be so visible for those who are up close. And while it may not be writer/director James Vanderbilt’s focus, it’s painfully clear where the 60 Minutes team responsible for the 2004 investigation into President George W. Bush’s service record in the Air National Guard manages to lay the groundwork for their own undoing.
What’s interesting is where the focus actually lies. Truth, based on the memoir of producer Mary Mapes, shows Mapes (Cate Blanchett) fighting to anyone who will hear that the story itself is true, and the problem lies in the picking-apart of one element of the story. In the film’s climactic scene, Mapes vehemently argues in defense of the overall story, “We are supposed to question everything!” But it’s the lack of questioning, combined with the acceptance of an earlier deadline, that proves to be the undoing of Mapes, Dan Rather (Robert Redford), and the 60 Minutes team.
Months earlier, Mapes is looking for a new story to investigate. She begins digging around into Bush’s time in the Air National Guard and the allegations of a year he spent AWOL, a story she previously looked at in 2000 before her mother’s death forced her to give up the story. She gets what she considers a key piece of information from a veteran who possesses photocopies of military memos regarding Bush’s service. When she asks where he got the memos, though, he’s reluctant to tell her. This leaves Mapes without a way to show where the documents originated, or who had them at various points between their creation and their photocopied submission to Mapes.
Still, Mapes has something. Mapes, Rather, and her team of researchers (Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss) begin to dig into the story. They pull in document analysts, finding people willing to verify the authenticity of the documents in question. Mapes is able to get in touch with a superior of the man who’s listed as authoring the memos, and after reading a portion, he confirms it as authentic. With a deadline pushed up, and edits being made down to the wire to fit it in, the team manages to get a story onto 60 Minutes II, the Wednesday edition of the program.
Within hours, though, the story starts getting picked apart by conservative websites. The authenticity of the memos comes into question, with someone stating that the memos could be recreated identically with the default settings in Microsoft Word. Mapes’ sources begin to back out or revise their stories, with some placing blame on Mapes for her aggressive questioning.
The 60 Minutes story and subsequent fallout make up some of the most noteworthy events in journalism this century. It’s the sort of material that’s primed for a gripping film adaptation. Mapes’ larger story about Bush is certainly compelling, and an argument Mapes makes near the end of the film about how everything would have to magically line up for a fake memo to get through to the news is worth considering. But the film embraces Mapes’ version of events a bit too closely, and in doing so fails to take a reasonable look at some aspects of the story.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the story is true. Even then, Mapes and Rather made crucial missteps in gathering the information for the story. They ignored concerns about the authenticity of the documents. They chose to believe a source who was legitimately questionable. These events are shown, but the film still pushes a narrative that Mapes, Rather, and the others who lost their jobs at CBS were victims of right-wing political and corporate interests for daring to raise questions about President Bush. The narrative may very well be legitimate. But it’s hard not to look at aspects of the reporting and acknowledge – unlike the characters – that serious, ethically questionable mistakes were made. If Truth took time to specifically acknowledge this, it would make for a stronger film.
Still, Cate Blanchett’s performance works mightily to strengthen the story Vanderbilt chose to tell. She portrays Mapes as headstrong, with a clear intent to go after those she sees as abusing power. In this story, Mapes clearly looks to Rather as a surrogate father figure. Both of these are shown as rooted in her upbringing at the hands of an abusive father, and an urgency on Mapes’ part to prevent that sort of abuse where she can. She’s paired well with Robert Redford, who manages to bring a solid version of Rather’s voice into his performance.
Even if it wasn’t the intent of those who made the film, it’s still possible to watch Truth and call out the flaws in the reporting of the story. The story is a strong case for the importance of journalists covering all of their bases in reporting a story – especially one as volatile as this. Otherwise, no matter how accurate the story itself may be, it risks being undermined.