In a scene in the docudrama, Truth, a young reporter, Mike Smith, asks veteran CBS news anchor, Dan Rather, “Why did you get into journalism?” “Curiosity,” the latter answers. It is a dogged pursuit of knowledge The film, about one of the best known journalism scandals in America, asks questions about ethics in reporting, and whether the means can justify the end when exposing ‘truths’ in the media.
In September 2004, Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), senior executive producer of CBS’s flagship news show, 60 Minutes, is alerted to information that then U.S. president, George W. Bush, may have used political connections to avoid being drafted to Vietnam when he was in the army. Instead of joining troops, he managed to become a pilot in the elite Texas Air National Guard. Furthermore, there appeared to be evidence Bush had shirked his duties as a pilot, failing to show up to base.
Mapes’ bosses give her the green might to pursue the story and veteran news anchor, Dan Rather (Robert Redford) is intrigued. They trust Mapes. After all, she’d won a Peabody Award for her exposé about the torture carried out by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib detention center in Afghanistan. Amid the Bush re-election campaign and five days to research, produce, and package the story, Mapes assembles a crack team to put together what would be an explosive exclusive reporte: military consultant, Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), journalism professor, Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), and Mike Smith (Topher Grace), a tireless freelance researcher.
Mapes tracks down copies of reports, purportedly by Bush’s commanders, confirming his dereliction of duty. The man who signed the reports, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killing, is dead, but the man who produced the copied documents is an ex-lieutenant general in the Texas Air Guard, Bill Birkett (Stacy Keach). The team discovers a video clip of Birkett’s source, Ben Barnes, regaling an anecdote at a dinner party that Bush failed to show up to base. Confronted with this, Barnes telephonically confirms to Mapes and Rather that the reports reflected Killian’s true feelings.
While handwriting experts say they can’t confirm the veracity of the documents, two feel the signatures on the copies match those of Killian’s originals. Confident that they’ve done due diligence by confirmation from various sources and documentary evidence, the piece is aired on 18 September 2004.
But within hours bloggers claim the font used on the copied documents had not been developed yet at the time they had apparently been typed up. Later, other experts suggest particularities of the typeface DID exist Birkett backtracks and Rather is forced to apologize on air, one of the worst kind of moments ever in any news anchor’s career. It’s not enough though.
An independent inquiry is instituted against Mapes and into whether she had behaved ethically, with particular questions raised about the timing of the story, just before the presidential elections.
It’s a journalistic nightmare that killed the careers of well-respected journalists in a massive scandal, that scrutinized in detail, the process of compiling stories.
The film is based on Mapes’ book, Truth and Duty: the Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power. In it, and in the film, she maintains the story was not about the documents, but about the revelation of nepotism in Bush’s military career. Truth highlights the regular dilemmas faced by investigative journalists. Practice is to confirm stories with multiple, credible sources, on the record, which the CBS team did. Experts appeared to support the claims. Mapes has argued she did due diligence, and that the story was in the public interest, and not an attempt to influence the election.
It’s important to note it’s never been proven that Bush did NOT shirk his duties. The story was simply ‘lost’ in the quagmire of the incident which was dubbed (a bit unfairly) Rathergate. The film asks whether truth trumps process. And it highlights real journalistic struggles about questions of ‘objectivity’ vs ‘truth’. There is no such thing as true objectivity, as Mapes seemingly admits when questioned by members of the inquiry (something most journalists would also confess). However, journalistic practice dictates fairness as the beacon for good reporting: gathering credible evidence, preferably on the record, presenting all the facts found, and giving all parties involved a chance to respond.
Unfortunately, Truth comes after the recent Oscar-winning masterpiece about good investigative journalism, Spotlight, and Vanderbilt’s film somewhat pales in comparison, lacking the flair of the former. Nevertheless,Truth is an engaging film, though, as a journalist myself, I should confess my bias, and I wonder whether those outside the news cycle may find it as compelling. Both Redford and Blanchett deliver solid performances and writer/director, James Vanderbilt, manages to build the tension in the plot until a satisfying climax, making the film a worthwhile watch.
Writer/director: James Vanderbilt
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss
Rating: 3.5 out of 5