Truth: A Terrible, Terrible Movie About Journalism

James Vanderbilt's directorial debut gets almost everything wrong about its putative subject.

Sony Pictures Classics

Late in the movie Truth, the former 60 Minutes Wednesday producer Mary Mapes (played by Cate Blanchett) offers a Big Speech about the state of journalism, decrying the fact that all that people want to read or watch on television these days is “conspiracy theories.” The irony apparently lost on her (or at least on the writer-director James Vanderbilt) is that she makes this charge while she herself is in the midst of presenting a conspiracy theory.

The film concerns 60 Minutes’s 2004 pre-election reporting on George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. Two documents central to the news program’s contention that Bush was granted preferential treatment were subsequently revealed to be almost certainly fraudulent. This error ultimately resulted in the retirement from CBS of Dan Rather (played here with likable understatement by Robert Redford) and the firing of Mapes and others. It’s in the midst of her “conspiracy theory” speech that Mapes suggests that the fraudulent documents were a cunning ploy by pro-Bush forces—immaculately sophisticated in some respects, but childishly certain to be recognized as fake in others—intended to discredit further reporting into his military record. Could this be true? Stranger things have happened, I suppose. But it’s pretty much the definition of a conspiracy theory.

This is, alas, of a piece with Truth, one of the worst films about journalism (and there have been plenty of bad ones) to come down the pike in a long while. The movie loudly, hectoringly stresses the importance of always “asking questions”—my notes include, among others, the lines “Questions help us get to the truth,” “You stop asking questions, that’s when the American people lose,” and “You’re supposed to question everything, that’s your job”—and yet the very quality it celebrates in its protagonist is that she never questions whether or not her reporting might have been wrong. This is a film in which acknowledging error is treated as some terrible surrender and betrayal of trust; in actual journalism, it’s considered a moral obligation—one that, sadly, most people in the field have had some experience with, in one capacity or another.

The movie’s peculiar effort to lionize a scoop while also admitting it was likely based on false evidence is captured immaculately in its Wikipedia entry, which was presumably authored by someone involved with the production (forgive the lengthy excerpt):

Mary Mapes, producer of the primetime news program 60 Minutes Wednesday, her crew, and eminent CBS national news anchor Dan Rather face an onslaught by right-wing bloggers, talk radio, and Bush Administration supporters following the airing, in the months before the U.S. 2004 presidential election, of a report that President George W. Bush, then seeking re-election, had in the early 1970s received preferential treatment from officials of the Texas Air National Guard. Such treatment, if it happened, which included concealing Bush's failure to meet even minimal training and performance requirements, and his absence from the Air Guard for most of 1972 following a transfer to the Alabama Air National Guard, would have allowed Bush to avoid combat duty during the latter part of the Vietnam War. It also would have caused consternation for Bush's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Killian, who died years before the 2004 election campaign. Lieutenant Colonel Killian allegedly authored three contemporaneous memoranda to be maintained in a general file, but not directed to higher ranking officers, detailing Bush's failures to meet the Guard's standards and the pressure Killian felt to facilitate the favoritism shown Bush.

If it happened. Would have allowed. Would have caused consternation. Allegedly authored. It’s a decidedly tricky balancing act to trumpet the historic importance of a news story while simultaneously casting doubt on its accuracy. Moreover, the Wiki post leaves out many crucial elements portrayed in the film (which is itself, as already noted, supremely one-sided). For example: While “right-wing bloggers” first questioned the documents, the story did not become real news until their concerns were subsequently investigated by ABC, The Washington Post, and pretty much every other mainstream outlet in the business—including CBS News itself. The many questions (remember: those things we’re supposed to ask) regarding the documents’ authenticity were not limited, as the Wiki post implies, to font-related matters. Oh, and the source who turned them over subsequently admitted on air that he’d lied initially about their provenance, offering instead a bizarre cloak-and-dagger scenario involving secretive contacts and original copies burned to destroy “DNA evidence.”

What is striking about the film is the degree to which it lauds Mapes and her colleagues (played by Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, and Dennis Quaid) most emphatically precisely when they are displaying their worst journalistic judgment. In the many conflicts between this crew and their CBS supervisors (Bruce Greenwood, David Lyons, Rachel Blake) over whether they did due diligence or at what point a correction might be appropriate, Truth clearly intends that we side with the former, despite the fact that the latter consistently offer by far the stronger case. This is perhaps never clearer than when Lyons’s character cuts down Grace’s with a perfect slice of Occam’s Razor: “It’s not that you guys fucked up a story. No, it’s a conspiracy.”

The script, as will surprise no one who’s made it this far, is based on a memoir by Mapes herself, The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power. It’s worth noting here that Mapes did much tremendous work in her career, in particular her Abu Ghraib reporting, which, in a cruel twist, won a Peabody award after her defenestration at CBS. (Also, for what it’s worth, I’ve never met Mapes and know nothing about her beyond what you read in the papers.)

What is particularly disappointing about Truth is that the writer-director Vanderbilt was also responsible for the script for Zodiac, one of the most underrated films of the last decade. That film, directed by David Fincher, was tremendously savvy about journalism, detective work, and the role of uncertainty. Here, by contrast, in his directorial debut, Vanderbilt loudly and explicitly picks a side—and, crucially, the wrong one.

The clear model for the movie is Michael Mann’s The Insider, another exceptional film not only about journalism but about 60 Minutes specifically. The problem is that the story Mann’s film tells displays all the qualities of a genuine journalistic triumph: reportorial diligence; a high-level whistleblower; perseverance in the face of explicit corporate pressure to spike the story. In place of these attributes, Truth can only offer: an admittedly rushed, insufficiently verified scoop; a politically motivated crank offering documents of dubious origin; and an entirely hypothetical conspiracy.

As if this all weren’t enough, the film offers a tedious parade of homilies regarding journalism: about corporate ownership, about profit margins, about public indifference, and about the bygone days when the network news was “a duty, a trust.” All of these concerns are as legitimate and topical today as they’ve ever been. But they are consistently discussed with an afternoon-special level of wonder and naivete, despite the fact that all the discussants are battle-hardened news vets.

Blanchett does what she can with her role, and Vanderbilt’s direction is capable if not particularly energetic. It’s not hard to see the good—perhaps even excellent—movie that could have been made on this subject: one that had some distance from its protagonist, one that offered alternative points of view, one that presented Mapes not as an embattled hero but as a tragic cautionary tale. Unfortunately, that is not the movie that Vanderbilt chose to make.