Sunday, November 01, 2015

Truth (2015)

Film: Truth (2015)
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss
Director: James Vanderbilt
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

It's a little weird to start to see current events not only that you remember, but ones that you followed vividly on the big screen, but that was the case for me with Truth.  The 2004 elections were the first election cycle that I truly gave up my time and energy to try and campaign.  I was out stumping for John Kerry every single weekend, volunteering at events, even meeting everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to John Edwards to escorting Andre Heinz around my campus in hopes of getting the Massachusetts senator into the White House.  So I remember being livid at CBS and the producers at 60 Minutes for giving ammunition to the Bush campaign, who were already out smearing Sen. Kerry's war record, by royally botching the Bush National Guard story.  As a result, I went into Truth, even eleven years later, wondering how I would feel watching a story that still stung as it unfolded onscreen. After all, not only did this hurt Kerry's presidential chances, but it also ruined Dan Rather's career and altered journalism irreparably to the point where no one has the credibility necessary to get the benefit-of-the-doubt anymore.  What I found was a movie that may have occasionally challenged my perceptions, even if it is hampered by weak supporting parts and an occasionally too simplistic approach to the facts.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film's story is extremely well-known to anyone paying the remotest attention to the news in 2004, but for those who didn't, here's a brief synopsis.  60 Minutes, headed by producer Mary Mapes (Blanchett) discovered documents that were later proven to be potentially-forged that indicated that then-President George W. Bush had used his father's connections to get out of serving in the Vietnam War, along with multiple other members of prominent Texas families at the time.  Mapes proceeded to put the show on 60 Minutes with Dan Rather (Redford) conducting the interviews.  Almost immediately after, questions arose about the authenticity of the documents and the validity of some of the interviews, and many members of the media questioned whether or not the story had been thoroughly vetted.  The question in some ways hurt the Kerry campaign, giving them little to discuss about Bush's military record in comparison to his due to having to appear in conjunction with the fabrications (remember at the time Kerry was being "Swift-boated" and was countering pretty vigorously his military career with that of President Bush considering the increasing unpopularity of the Iraq War), and destroyed CBS News' reputation, causing them to fire Mapes and let Rather go in order to administer damage control.

The film follows all of that, but as it is based on the memoirs of Mapes, it is much kinder to her than I think even the most generous of viewers would anticipate.  The film frequently finds ways to create doubt in favor of her story, giving credence to Mapes even in areas like the forged documents, which most unbiased observers have felt she should have done a better job authenticating.  The film's politics, therefore, are interesting because they run counter to what many people, including CBS, have felt at the time and are pretty quick to throw two major "hmms" into the controversy; one, that CBS had a lot to gain from President Bush being re-elected due to the Viacom merger and two, that the reasons to forge the documents were pretty suspect and would have required someone with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of President Bush's time in the National Guard.  These are two fuels for the liberal side of this conspiracy theory, and while the politics seem pretty much in order, one does raise an eyebrow at the way that Mapes, our clear heroine in this story according to the writers, is exonerated by the directors even though at the very least she exhibited a serious lack of good judgment by airing this story without better vetting her sources.

The film's politics aside (and that's a big aside as they're the most interesting part when you compare it to the public perception of this scandal), you have a film that is pretty blase and hackneyed.  Taking out the fact that we know the ending from the beginning, the film's attitudes toward journalism occasionally feels a bit like it's trying to piggyback onto All the President's Men, but the side characters are wholly underwritten and underacted as opposed to that film.  There's a scene late in the movie where Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid meet with a throwback to an earlier scene where Quaid called him a hippie, except they've had almost no interaction since then so it's nostalgia over something you didn't care about, and this is true for most of the film.  The movie's only truly important characters, aside from the threat to journalistic trust, are Redford's Rather and Blanchett's Mary, and we get wildly different results from these two.  Redford's underplaying Rather far too much, and seems to just be portraying Robert Redford as a journalist.  There's no attempt by the actor to imitate Rather's iconic voice, and even his mannerisms lost in translation.  It feels more like Redford is playing simply a man who is revered, rather than one of the most recognizable figures in journalism of the past forty years.  This is entirely a miss, and something the film (which wants to make you cry), should have played up better considering Rather's position in a lot of our childhoods from watching alongside our parents and grandparents (including my own).

Blanchett, on the other hand, is marvelous.  For an actress that has developed a brilliant little niche of playing insanely wealthy white women who are deluded by their own stature into making critical mistakes (Elizabeth, Talented Mr. Ripley, Aviator, Blue Jasmine, soon Carol), she still finds something new and exciting onscreen as Mary Mapes.  She plays her both as someone who has an insane amount of conviction, but also who can't quite see that she could be wrong, that she made mistakes.  There's a number of fantastic monologues for her, particularly one late in the movie where she verbally owns the board investigating her, and you can see on Blanchett's face things she's been struggling to convince a public that has turned against her of, even when she realizes that she might have been glossed over by select prejudices.  Blanchett's a force of raw energy here, easily worth the price of admission even if I do give the film itself two stars.  She'll be nominated for Carol if she's included at the Oscars, but her work in Truth is a pretty fantastic consolation prize.

Those were my thoughts-let's hear yours.  This is likely to set social media a bit on-fire considering the political leanings of the filmmakers, so what did you think of Truth?  Where does it rank against some of Blanchett and Redford's other work?  And do you ever have a movie change your mind about a real-life event?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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