“Truth” Movie Review

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     Poor Jeb Bush.  It seems he and his family can’t catch a break these days, since it appears there are filmmakers out there still intent on rehashing baseless stories that do nothing more than create more needless division and confusion.  Perhaps “White House Down” scribe James Vanderbilt had a personal ax to grind with his directing debut “Truth”, a film that chronicles the ill-fated “60 Minutes 2” story in which producer Mary Mapes endured a massive backlash against a report that accused then President George W. Bush of skipping out on his service in the Texas Air National Guard, allowing him to avoid going to Vietnam.  With Vanderbilt’s screenplay having been adapted from Mapes book, it’s no surprise which point of view the film tends to lean towards.  In other words, “Truth” plays like a woe is me Democratic party sponsored justification piece for the mainstream media as a whole, leaving no one to really root for in the film as we come to realize the battle the filmmakers are dramatizing was lost over a decade ago.

     In the film’s first scene, CBS anchor Dan Rather is set to receive an award in front of many of his peers in the business.  His boss, Andrew Hayward (Bruce Greenwood), standing at the podium, introduces his long time mentor, but then someone else comes on stage.  Isn’t that Robert Redford?  In what seems to be a recent trend likely causing a stir within the makeup artist community, actors are apparently no longer required to resemble the real life people they are playing.  Of course, Michael Fassbender looks nothing like Steve Jobs either and he knocked that role right out of the park, but Fassbender isn’t as well known and iconic when compared to Robert Redford and though he remains on point for the duration of the film, he never really appeared to be anything more than a stand in for the highly regarded anchor.  Stepping into the shoes of Mary Mapes, Cate Blanchett does fine work here, as she continues to show incredible range and emotional depth in every character she plays.  The problem with “Truth” has nothing to do with any of the performances.  It’s the story’s lack of interest and the method in which it is presented that creates its downfall.

     With the 2004 Presidential Election hanging in the balance, President Bush begins running attack ads against his opponent, Senator John Kerry, intending to discredit his claims of heroism during his military service.  Mapes, whose own political views are undeniably adverse to the President and the Republican Party, begins digging into Bush’s own claims of military service while in the Texas Air National Guard.  Initially, the focus of the story was whether or not Bush received preferential treatment that allowed him to avoid the Vietnam War by receiving an assignment ensuring he would remain stateside.  When a tip Mapes receives leads her to former Texas Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, she asks him directly if Bush received preferential treatment in getting the assignment as it was shown Barnes had that authority during his 1969-1973 term in office.  With Barnes waffling on his answer, Mapes convinces her hire ups to allow her to form a team of investigators to look deeper into the issue.

     Flanked by several of her former collaborators, including Mike Smith (Topher Grace), Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), Mapes begins to follow a paper trail, looking for documentation of Bush’s service and the various highlights of his career such as training, duty stations, and his status as a pilot.  Vanderbilt recreates many of the known newsroom stereotypes, showing the characters burning the oil at all hours of the night going through thousands of documents, making hundreds of phone calls, and basically getting no where.  Until one phone call yields something intriguing.  A man named Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett is claiming to have documents that go well beyond Bush being given special treatment.  When Mapes goes into the home of Burkett, she is presented with two documents that indicate a General, who was overseeing the Texas Air National Guard at the time, was dealing with the fact that Bush had failed to show up for his initial training and did virtually no service at all.  Information that would be in stark contrast to his official military records released by the White House.

     This story is likely quite familiar to most people, since it was dubbed “Rathergate” and destroyed the careers of all involved.  When Mapes and CBS ran the story on “60 Minutes 2” in early September, 2004, there was a near instantaneous backlash from both the White House and competing media outlets as to the authenticity of the documents which the entire story hinged on.  The media in this country has a tremendous responsibility to ensure before they report on a story that their sources and evidence are air tight, a responsibility that is not unlike a police officer who in the same circumstance is expected to properly weigh and vet any evidence and witnesses, all the while remaining impartial.  When the media fails to do so, they are violating the trust we have in them to properly report.  So often it seems this trust is violated in favor of becoming the next Woodward and Bernstein. 

     When Mapes, Rather, and their team were caught in a situation where they clearly did not properly investigate their sources, and particularly the legitimacy of those documents, they should have backed off and admitted wrong. Practically the entire third act is dedicated to Mapes attempts to prove she was correct, even in the face of overwhelming evidence proving otherwise.  While none of this is entertaining to watch, the reason they never did is shown clearly at key points in “Truth”.  One of which is a sequence where each of them is shown watching the “60 Minutes” piece airing for the first time.  The giddy and triumphant look on each of their faces tells us a lot about how thrilled they were to be the ones to expose a controversial President and ultimately sway an election just two months away.  What this story really exposes is how the media can take advantage of their power to manipulate and often determine public opinion while allowing themselves to be steered by their own personal bias.  This is why the Republican candidates for President recently slammed CNBC and their debate moderators for their unprofessional handling of a very important debate.  And this why films like “Truth”, the wanna be awards contenders that they are, are nothing more than old news. GRADE: C-