Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Movie Review: Truth

Directed by: James Vanderbilt.
Written by: James Vanderbilt based on the book by Mary Mapes.
Starring: Cate Blanchett (Mary Mapes), Robert Redford (Dan Rather), Topher Grace (Mike Smith), Dennis Quaid (Lt. Colonel Roger Charles), Elisabeth Moss (Lucy Scott), Bruce Greenwood (Andrew Heyward), Stacy Keach (Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett), David Lyons (Josh Howard), Dermot Mulroney (Lawrence Lanpher), Rachael Blake (Betsy West), Andrew McFarlane (Dick Hibey), Natalie Saleeba (Mary Murphy), Noni Hazlehurst (Nicki Burkett), Connor Burke (Robert Mapes), Philip Quast (Ben Barnes).

Truth is a movie about the modern media we live with every day now – where partisanship seems to be more important than truth, and people get so bogged down in every little detail of a story, than the story itself sometimes gets lost. The real life case that writer/director James Vanderbilt has chosen to make his stand is the one aired on 60 Minutes in September 2004 – reported by Dan Rather, and produced by Mary Mapes, that claimed that then President George W. Bush had strings pulled for him to get him into the Texas National Guard instead of going to Vietnam – and even while he was there, he pretty much ignored his duty. It was an explosive story – and because of the timeline, Mapes and Rather and their time rushed the reporting process – perhaps not fully vetting the documents they had received to back their story up, and putting it on the air anyway. Because Vanderbilt has cast Cate Blanchatt as Mapes and Robert Redford as Rather, you know from the outset which side the movie is on here – theirs – and for a movie entitled Truth, this hurts it more than a little bit. There are real questions here – but the movie steadfastly stands behind Mapes and Rather and their team – which few people in real life actually did.

The movie begins with an undeniable triumph for Mapes and Rather – their Abu Ghraib story from earlier in 2004 that would win CBS news awards after the pair of them had been shown the door. It then shifts focus very quickly to Mapes and her team of researchers – Mike Smith (Topher Grace), Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) and retired Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid) trying to figure out just what exactly Bush was doing during his time in the Texas National Guard – and how he ended up there in the first place. Parts of Bush’s file seem to be missing – which the administration treats as a non-issue – “files go missing all the time” is their rationale. Then they track down a source, Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) who says he has photocopies of the missing parts of Bush’s files – and they are pretty damning. Poor progress reviews, evidence that Bush was AWOL for a year, etc. They take the documents to several different document examiners – some of whom give them the all clear, and some who are unwilling to, mainly because they are photocopies, not originals, so they are impossible to truly sign off on. They go to air anyway with the story – and as expected, it’s huge. But then people start picking at the story – going after the documents with all sorts of claims. Everyone seems to be ganging up on CBS news, who scrambles for coverage.

Truth is a decent movie, in large part because Blanchatt and Redford are so good in it. Blanchatt excels at playing smart, confident women – and that is precisely who Mapes is when the movie begins. She is also excellent at playing women who are crumbling, and that is what happens as the movie progresses – while Mapes has to watch the world she has built for herself come down, brick by brick, and the smart woman becomes a little bit of a mess – before she regains her composure in the closing scenes, and gives an impassioned speech defending everything she has done. Redford may seem like an odd choice to play Rather – his Hollywood charm is not exactly a match for Rather’s studied homespun wisdom – but it is smart casting – an icon playing an icon, and Redford provides the gravitas needed for Rather, even if he doesn’t particularly look or sound like Rather. Anyone can do an impression though – what Redford does is something only someone like he can do. Like his silent work in All is Lost, a lot of his performance in Truth relies merely on his presence – and the audience’s history with Redford, something that Rather also had – that of a trusted friend. Redford really doesn’t do much here – but his presence is more effective than a more gifted impersonator of Rather could have done.

The movie around these two performances however is nowhere near as good as they are. This is Vanderbilt’s directorial debut – and he has a rather straight forward directing style. He had previously written the screenplay for David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac (2007) – but he doesn’t have Fincher’s gift for shooting interiors and filling the frame with details that make everything feel authentic. It’s not bad direction, but there’s nothing that special about it either. His screenplay falls short on several fronts as well. It basically wastes two excellent actors – Dennis Quaid and Elisabeth Moss – by giving them nothing to do, and turns Topher Grace’s Mike Smith into basically a paranoid, crackpot conspiracy theorist – and gives him the worst speech in the movie as he rants like a crazy person about CBS news bending over backwards because of their corporate overlords at the behest of the Bush administration. You could argue the validity of his claim – but the way the speech plays, its soapbox territory. The only thing that saves the final speech Mapes makes in her defense is that Blanchatt finds the right not to deliver it. The biggest problem may well be that for a movie entitled Truth, the film does feel awfully one sided and dismissive of anyone who disagrees with Mapes and company. There are legitimate beefs with this story, but the movie mainly dismisses them – or brings them up and has them voiced by rather minor and/or cowardly characters anyway.

Overall, Truth works because Blanchatt and Redford make it work. It’s a one sided movie, where a broader perspective could have made something more of the film that what it is – which is what makes the film a little disappointing – not because of what it is, but because of what it could have been.

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