The Hippo


Jul 24, 2019









Truth (R)
Film Reviews by Amy Diaz

By Amy Diaz

 Dan Rather and producers bungle a story about George W. Bush’s military service during the Vietnam War in Truth, a movie based on the true story of the CBS report and subsequent scandal.

So, as the movie tells it, in 2004, a few months before the election, producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and Dan Rather (Robert Redford) delivered via 60 Minutes a report about then-president Bush’s military service. Mapes’ team gathered sources and documents that seemed to back up the idea that Bush had wiggled out of his term of service in the Texas National Guard. Most of the information on Bush’s service is backed up by an official paper trail but the last mile, the stuff that painted Bush as a shirker, comes primarily from what feels like shaky sources and some copies of documents that are alleged to be part of a now-deceased general’s personal files. Mapes and her team — Mike Smith (Topher Grace), Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid) and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) — do what they appear to believe to be their due diligence with the information, even having four independent analysts look at the memos. Though, because of programming schedules, the report seems to be pushed on air faster than Mapes would like, Mapes, Rather and the team believe they’ve broken an important piece of news.
At first. Soon — the next day, it appears — questions start to arise about the memos. Bloggers and then the conservative media and then the media in general start to make the case that the memos are fake. They point to fonts and type style more familiar in modern PCs than 1970s military typewriters. Mapes and Rather hang on, with the network sort of supporting them, but then sources start to change their statements. The network retracts the story with Rather delivering an on-air apology and Mapes becomes the focus of an independent investigation and a media firestorm that suggests her reporting was politically motivated. 
There’s a moment early in the movie where members of Mapes’ team are discussing what drives Mapes. She almost had the story in 2000, one person says, but had to drop it because her mother died. And her journalistic doggedness and dislike of bullies has its roots in her childhood, when her drunken father would physically abuse her. “She would get beat up for asking questions?” says Elisabeth Moss’s character, with such brazenness that I thought she might turn to the camera and wink. It is bad form, I think, to throw something at the screen in a public theater but I very nearly did. The completely artless scene exhibits oh-so-many of the movie’s worst sins: the movie’s self-importance (Mapes’ story could have swung the election for Gore! we’re told), its tendency to present everything as loudly and nuance-free as possible, its use of talented actors solely as conduits for making an argument and its seemingly inconsistent position on whether this specific story was a crusade for Mapes. On the one hand, the movie seems to argue, Mapes is a consummate professional just following a lead; on the other hand, she is an obsessive pursuer of anything and anyone she views as bullying. 
Though Rather is the big name, Mapes is really the center of this movie. While the movie starts off showing her as a woman who is highly competent at her job, the movie ends up showing her as a person who is shoved around by forces outside her control. And while that may be true to some extent, Mapes’ transition from journalistic alpha dog to lone lady weeping in the wilderness is rather abrupt and filled with a lot more speechifying than I had the patience for. The situation, a huge story that quickly implodes, is the ultimate nightmare for a reporter. It is the thing that keeps you up at night and I feel like more could have been made of that, of how it feels to watch small screw-ups snowball into the destruction of your career. Instead, I feel like the movie goes to this place where it’s just the small woman being beat up on by Big Conservatives and also The Internet and also Corporate Interests. The movie acknowledges that the reporting staff messed up their story in the same moment that it also suggests that Viacom’s financial dealings are the real reason CBS is investigating the report.
And, whatever your opinion about the overall point of the story about Bush’s military service, it’s fair to say that the team, at least the way they’re shown here, did mess up in the reporting of it. Much like a court case where untainted evidence needs to prove guilt, a story like this needs reliable sources to make its case and in the end the sources, as shown here, turned out not to be reliable. The distinction is one of the rare points the movie doesn’t underline and would have made for a more interesting look at the episode. (Side note about smug journalism stories: The Newsroom, a TV show which I admit I mostly just hate-watched, also had a “big story gone wrong” storyline, culminating in possibly its best scene of the series where characters played by Sam Waterston, Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer attempted to resign to the network owner, played by Jane Fonda. The three were the president of the news network, news show anchor and show producer, respectively, who worked on a story that turned out to be blatantly fake, not just poorly sourced. The scene ends with Waterston shouting that they have to go, they’ve lost the public’s trust. Fonda’s character responds “Get it back!” Underneath all the Sorkinness, it actually is a pretty good examination of the way newspeople feel about what they report and the different ways of coming back from a serious mistake. Truth never gets this close to the different layers of emotion reporters might have in such a situation.)
This movie, whose story really has only unhappy endings, ends on what feels like a weird triumphant note, with the last CBS Evening News broadcast of Rather (Redford’s Rather is a whole extra layer of smug that sees all previous Redford smugness and raises it; I have no idea what we’re meant to feel about Rather because I couldn’t stop being annoyed with Redford). The ending felt so out of tune with the movie that I was left not knowing what I was supposed to think or what the movie felt it had just proved. In the end Truth feels like a movie held hostage by the facts of the Bush story — and trying to Say Something about it — when really what it should have been about was the people and the process of the reporting. C- 
Rated R for language and a brief nude photo. Directed by James Vanderbilt from the memoir by Mary Mapes, Truth is two hours and one minute long and distributed by Sony Pictures Classic. 

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