At its best, Truth is an archaeological feat: an excavation of what was perhaps the first heinous overreaction to an online mob of self-appointed fact-checkers. Like James Vanderbilt’s previous screenplay, for David Fincher’s Zodiac, it’s built around a small mountain of impeccably curated details. Vanderbilt’s feature directorial debut portrays the reportage behind the 2004 60 Minutes exposé arguing that George W. Bush, then up for reelection against John Kerry, shirked fundamental duties in his time with the National Guard during the Vietnam War. Leading the story is Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), the CBS producer who had recently helped expose the military misdeeds at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. After online commentators began questioning the veracity of documentation Mapes used in her story, the producer was fired, a number of CBS News executives resigned, and legendary news anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) retired from his influential perch.
Truth’s first half is, all at once, surprisingly fluid and leaden with exposition, a dogged hunt for sources and paperwork spearheaded by Mapes and supported by a ragtag cadre of reporters, including a retired colonel (Dennis Quaid), a leftist researcher (Topher Grace), and a young producer (Elisabeth Moss). Vanderbilt fills the screen with creeping zooms into analog phones, Chinese food boxes, and impressively thick binders. Meanwhile, he fills his characters’ mouths with words that rob them of personality while assuring the audience that they’re adept journalists. Crucial missteps in the team’s reportage—failing to thoroughly vet sources (Stacy Keach plays a shady whistleblower) and authenticate reproduced documents from Bush’s time in the Guard—are rigorously foreshadowed.
Amid the chase for the story, a few key themes are established, some more elegantly than others. The atmosphere of the 2004 election, in which Kerry has recently been “Swift Boated” and CBS is concerned that the Guard revelations may be portrayed as a deliberate counter-punch in the height of the campaign, is pungent. Mapes’s relationship with Rather is portrayed as tenderly paternal, a way for the producer to overcome a childhood with an abusive father. CBS itself, referred to as the “gold standard” of television journalism thanks to the imprimatur of 60 Minutes, is ominously threatened by the 24-hour news cycle and the advent of infotainment.
Vanderbilt’s treatment is nothing if not judicious, but Truth’s resolutely even-handed setup seriously damages its prolonged denouement. Like Mapes, her staff, and CBS News, the film is caught flat-footed by the firestorm of conservative activists and fact-checkers who challenged the 60 Minutes story. The “bloggers” are referred to in derisive and villainous terms, but they have no physical manifestation in the film, so a series of increasingly tiresome scenes finds Mapes in rooms with her bosses and colleagues. She bemoans the bloggers’ complaints in a posture of simultaneous defense and humility. In a way, the film becomes a document of how difficult it is to challenge an online mob: to admit lapses in certainty while affirming the broader veracity of an exhaustively researched work of hard-news journalism. It’s a noble cause, but it can’t help but feel nitpicky and cinematically unsatisfying.
Truth is, for too long, stuck in a tricky position, attempting to keep viewers firmly on Mapes’s side just as it reveals the flaws in her work. Given the state of the Internet’s shaming culture, there’s a certain amount of gravity to this defensive crouch, but the film is obliged to abandon it in favor of a more rabble-rousing, moralistic finale. In the film’s final half-hour, Vanderbilt attempts to stake out some firm philosophical terrain, cutting through a thicket of evidence and reportorial miscues with a series of ostentatious speeches about the state of politics the corporate-owned media. Both Mapes and Topher Grace’s freelance researcher deliver lengthy sermons about journalistic tradition and ethics to oblivious audiences, but the grandeur feels out of place within Truth’s pragmatic, just-the-facts framework. The film is persuasive when it faces the gravity of the online mob, and sadly impotent while raging against it.
In the end, Truth’s exhaustiveness is its own downfall. It’s a film that can’t develop themes because it’s too busy disseminating information, and this extends to its main characters. Neither Blanchett nor Redford have the breathing room to develop their characters. Redford’s effortless dignity and fatherly gravitas suits the role of Rather (who he only resembles in a few dimly lit profile shots), but the film is content to keep him a mythical figure. Via Blanchett, Mapes’s demeanor veers from assertive and imperious to the damaged or simply frazzled, without finding a solid center.
Vanderbilt insists on portraying Mapes as a victim of lifelong abuse at the hands of her father (she slugs glasses of wine and is quick to reach for a bottle of Xanax), but he’s either uncharacteristically subtle about or a bit too uninterested in her status as a powerful woman in an industry dominated by men. One of Truth’s primary lessons is that Mapes’s critics used a few minor oversights to take down an otherwise sound piece of journalism, but the film is too glossy in its examination of how institutional forces led to her downfall. A few gnarled trees were enough to bring down the forest. Both Mapes and Truth would have been better served by a film that focused more firmly on her, rather than what her downfall says about the state of the news today.