Few people might think documents are exciting, and fewer still that a story about them would make for a compelling Hollywood movie. Yet there have been many fantastic films that track the journey of investigative reporters sifting through piles of paperwork. The director of Truth and one of its stars worked on two of the best – James Vanderbilt wrote Zodiac and Robert Redford starred in All The President’s Men.
Unfortunately their latest film doesn’t match up to those earlier classics. Instead this preachy eulogy to ‘old school’ journalism, which seeks to remind us of the value of asking questions and seeking the truth (obviously), will only be remembered for one performance and will live in the shadow of its more deftly handled contemporary, Spotlight.
Set in 2004 in the offices of CBS news’ 60 Minutes, Truth follows producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) as she works on her next big piece after the career high of the Abu Ghraib abuse story. With a lead on murky goings-on around President George W. Bush’s time in the military, and encouraged by her mentor, veteran news man Dan Rather (Redford), Mapes assembles a team of journalists to dig deeper. But their report on leaked memos alleging that Bush skipped his National Guard duty (which, alongside talk that his time there was string-pulled to avoid serving in Vietnam, would not look good for the upcoming election) doesn’t stand up to the fierce criticism that comes their way, and ends up costing them both.
The first thing to say is that Truth is more gripping than a movie about memos, fonts, and formatting has any right to be, and credit must go to Vanderbilt for that. His direction is workmanlike but fine, giving decent drama and tension to scenes of people looking over documents and editing film, but his script lacks finesse and balance. The film doles out expository dialogue, full of character backstory and motivation, like it’s a memo to the audience. “You mean she would get beat up for asking questions and this is what she does for a job?” is just one such tired and cringe worthy exchange.
For a film supposedly about truth, giving the whole story, and the best of journalism, Truth is decidedly one-sided and features these reporters at their worst. The script continually harps on about the importance of asking questions (“You stop asking questions, that’s when the American people lose”) but Mapes doesn’t stop to question her own reporting. Based on Mapes’ book, the film presents Rather, Mapes, and her team as plucky underdogs raging against the system. I have little doubt about the varied and numerous terrible things done for and by George W. Bush, but it’s easy to guess that this version of events has less truth to it than they would have us believe.
Unsurprisingly, like any film she’s in, it’s Blanchett’s show. She is excellent, rising above the script to give a performance full of sadness, fight, righteous anger and fear. The rest of the cast make little impression though. Redford does little more than a hagiography of Rather, doling out wisdom and getting standing ovations, while the film’s most criminal error is the underuse of Elisabeth Moss. As one of the investigating team, Moss is given a throw-away introduction and little more than four lines of dialogue. For an actor of her ability, it’s unconscionable.
The tone of the movie is also distinctly uneven. It begins lightly, with jokes about pixelating genitals and an introduction of the crack team of journalists that Mapes wants to hire like they’re a heist squad from Ocean’s Eleven. The film them moves through thriller as the team pour over documents, on to legal drama, family melodrama, and finally message-movie laying down moral judgements from on high. This film doesn’t know what it is but it feels like it wants to tell us what to think.
Truth is in cinemas from 3rd December through Roadshow Films.