The Truth About “Truth”

“Truth,” a James Vanderbilt film based on “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes’ memoir “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power,” is a story about journalism — the curiosity, skepticism, persistence and courage it sometimes takes to uncover and tell inconvenient truths. Alongside the more subtle discussion of journalism, the film chronicles a series of events in the months prior to the 2004 presidential election: the CBS broadcast of a story questioning the nature of then-president George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard in the ‘70s and the resulting controversy.

The main characters Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), Dan Rather (Robert Redford), Mike Smith (Topher Grace), Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid) and Lucy Scott (Elizabeth Moss), following Mapes’ lead, work to piece the story together following a military paper trail and a few contacts.  Just when the team is at a low, they stumble upon a retired military man willing to release copies of two documents confirming Bush’s preferential treatment in the National Guard.  However, once the story is released, people begin to question the documents and, by association, the story as a whole.

From this turning point, the film’s protagonist spins into a downward spiral. Her credibility is questioned, her work scrutinized and the story she believed to be true is lost in media noise. The end is not quite a happy one, but you don’t necessarily walk away sad.

Actually, the film portrays Mapes, Rather and their colleagues as heroes. It gives the impression that what they did — standing by a story in the face of corporate, political and personal economic pressure — was good and brave. You have a sense of who the “good” and “bad” people are in the film, and that is one of my few issues with it.

Given that Bush’s time in service is still a controversy, the film presented Mapes’ story as if it had been proven, but it hasn’t. I think if you are audacious enough to call a film “Truth,” you have to be able to live up to that; the presentation of matters should be fair, especially in a film raising questions about journalism. My other issue with the film is that the dialogue was somewhat didactic and expository; oftentimes, the characters would state the obvious.

However, the film did have some gems. Vanderbilt stresses the importance of accurate journalism for a functional democracy; he raises questions concerning the corporate ownership of media, especially news media, and its effects on public opinion and the seemingly ever occurring struggle to maintain the right to find and tell the truth. Also, I think Blanchett did a great job as Mary Mapes.

Although I think the film could have been a bit more nuanced in its representation of the 2004 events, I ultimately enjoyed it and agree with Dan Rather’s character: “You stop asking questions and the American people lose.”

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