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.