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Movie Review: “Truth”

30 Oct

As someone who’s dabbled in both legal journalism and freelance work, films depicting the upper echelons of the journalism profession are always of interest to me (“Shattered Glass” is a particular favorite). “Truth” is the story of the 2004 controversy over George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard, which led to staff firings at CBS News when crucial documents (suggesting nepotism and AWOL conduct) could not be authenticated. The film centers on CBS producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), with a supporting performance by Robert Redford as legendary anchor Dan Rather, and spans the period from initial genesis of the disputed news report to the subsequent investigation.

Despite the seemingly narrow scope of its subject matter, “Truth” is incredibly riveting – thanks primarily to a steely performance by Blanchett in full Wronged-Heroine grandeur. And indeed, at first blush, “Truth” appears to veer headlong into crass melodrama. Doom-tinged music plays when a Fox News truck shows up outside Mapes’s home. Rather’s on-air retirement is accompanied by triumphant slo-mo and a standing ovation. It’s suggested that Mapes and her team are sacrificial lambs on the altar of CBS’s parent company Viacom, which happens to be lobbying the Bush administration to avoid antitrust investigations. Topher Grace yells something about conspiracies. As “Truth” enters its third act, one thing becomes crystal-clear: the film is either a kludgy hagiographic attempt to lionize its protagonists, or an exquisitely subtle study of self-deception.

Ultimately, I submit the latter is the correct reading.

At base, “Truth” is not an omniscient-narrator, purely historical recollection of events: it’s unashamedly based on Mapes’ own book about the events. Yet rather than uncritically portraying Mapes and Rather as liberal martyrs, director James Vanderbilt deftly interweaves small hints that perhaps Mapes is an unreliable judge of her own narrative.

In an early scene, Mapes compiles a report on Abu Ghraib abuses (a report for which CBS News later won a Peabody award). Images of detainee abuse are jarringly juxtaposed with a scene of Mapes and her colleagues engaging in joyous self-congratulation over a job well done. The viewer is left with the uneasy feeling that perhaps a psychological disconnect exists between the journalistic project and the thing that is investigated: a mental and emotional gap between the task of reporting and the fact that one recounts. Furthermore, during her late-in-the-game grilling by a panel of investigators – disparagingly described onscreen as “conservative lawyers” – Mapes faces the same questions that savvy filmgoers have been mulling over since the beginning. Didn’t the Bush story operate on a “guilty until proven innocent” narrative? Weren’t initial inferences made that probably shouldn’t have been made without more evidence?

Viewers who’ve been paying careful attention will have harbored similar questions – and Mapes never really answers them to anyone’s satisfaction. One may exit the theater believing the underlying story – Bush doing dicey things in the Air National Guard – is true (it’s pretty clear Mapes believed the underlying story was factual)…yet Vanderbilt pushes the audience to ask where the real burden of proof lies. That burden rested with Mapes and her team – a burden that they ultimately failed to carry.

Is “Truth” worth seeing? Indeed it is, especially for journalists, lawyers, and those interested in the ways in which political narratives are shaped. Some may find it easy to write off the film as a bit of revisionist history, but “Truth” is much more deft than that. For instance, CBS News has apparently hit back against its corporate demonization in “Truth” – yet this backlash misses the real point. “Truth” isn’t actually a sophisticated attempt to exonerate its protagonists: it’s the story as perceived by Mapes, and a testament to how easy it is for one’s own portrait of the world to become clouded.

And that, for any commentator on current events, is always a sobering thought.

VERDICT: 8/10
An exceptionally well-acted journalism drama, with thematic complexity paralleling “Memento.”

Normalized Score: 5.8

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Posted by on October 30, 2015 in Contemporary

 

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