Late in Truth, the new "based on a true story" movie about the botched 60 Minutes report that cost former CBS news anchor Dan Rather (among others) his job, a character asks Rather (played here by Robert Redford) why he got into journalism in the first place.
"Curiosity," Rather replies, underlining the film's constant reminders that journalists are there to ask questions, and if they don't, who will? This is true, insofar as it goes, but nobody likes a scold, and Truth has long since passed the point of repetition with this particular message.
But what, Rather asks, got this other young man into journalism?
"You!" the other says, and the camera holds in close-up on Rather's face as music swells majestically on the soundtrack. He's not just the hero of the film; he's a fallen martyr for an entire profession, condemned because he asked questions and got answers others weren't happy with.
Movies like Truth are why so many people hate "Hollywood liberals."
Truth won't let its heroes be human
The central problem with Truth is how thoroughly it stacks its deck. It's not really comfortable with the idea that its central characters got something wrong, so it continues to insist — long past the point of reasonableness — that they got everything right, that even the famously suspicious memos that led to so many of their firings were never definitively proved fake (that's because they also can't be definitively proved genuine). It really wants you to think they got the right story and were buried for it.
Which is bullshit. The characters at the film's center — led by veteran producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) — got rolled by a flimsy source whose background they didn't spend nearly enough time checking, a man who obtained mysterious documents under mysterious circumstances, then completely undercut his own story as soon as the temperature started to rise. (Perhaps tellingly, the film is based on Mapes's book.)
Mapes and Rather were asking some interesting questions about George W. Bush's Air National Guard service (or lack thereof), and the information they found without the memos (which alleged that higher-ups covered for him during a long period when he went AWOL) would have been enough for a damning report. But they pushed for something else, because it made for a better scoop and a more exciting story. They were bumping up against a hard deadline, and they made the wrong call, then got buried for it.
Truth could be so good if it worked less to valorize its subjects. The movie's argument at first seems to be that the reporters got everything right but the memos, and that one tiny flaw eventually caused a nation to doubt the entire story.
And that idea could work! It could be a story about hubris and overlooking the tiniest of details and the punishment not fitting the crime. There are hints of that movie scattered throughout Truth (as when Mapes goes online and sees people spewing horrible invective about her), but they're few and far between.
More often, first-time director James Vanderbilt shoots his heroes in soft focus, like they're real-life versions of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the only people willing to stand up for what's good and right in a world gone mad. "The rest of the story was airtight!" the movie argues, "So who cares about those memos? (Also, the memos were totally real and nobody wanted you to know that.)"
That's all well and good for an argument in an online comments section, but in a movie that purports to be about finding the truth, it ignores how a mistake that fundamental is slightly different from, say, spelling someone's name incorrectly. The movie refuses to acknowledge its characters as anything other than glistening heroes, and that's its undoing.
Truth has so many elements that almost work — and then don't
Set aside for the moment your own political persuasions, and assume that literally everything Mapes and Rather reported — including the contents of the memos — was true as they reported it. The story is still deeply problematic, simply because the origin of those memos doesn't hold up to any real scrutiny. Getting the story is important, yes, but sourcing is even more important, and that's where the two fell down on the job. (This is to say nothing of Mapes's contact with the John Kerry campaign, which literally comes out of nowhere in the film and is handled poorly.)
To its credit, Truth doesn't have a lot of bad guys. It doesn't cut away to a blogger twirling his mustache and talking about kerning or font styles (two of the details that called the memos into question). The worst sin in the film's universe is failing to stand by these hard-nosed reporters as they quest for the truth, which means that most of its "bad" characters are simply characters who crumple at moments of convenience, rather than standing beside their team.
Thus, the film's point of view is morally simplistic. The good guys are great and incapable of wrongdoing. The bad guys are good until they're not. The real villains are society, the Bush administration, and unseen legions of internet commenters. It's a film built to assure people who agree with Mapes and Rather that, yes, they are doing good work for continuing to ask hard questions of people in power, but mostly Republicans. (It's hard to imagine this creative team producing a movie like this where the villain was the Clinton or Obama administrations.)
And, look, it can be fun to be in the choir that's being preached to. But this sort of liberal agitprop rarely serves to do anything other than puff up egos and make people feel good for believing what they do. While there are conservative versions of the same thing, they're mostly confined to fringe corners of our pop culture, whereas Truth will get an Oscar campaign and features big-name stars. (It's worth noting that Blanchett is tremendous, as she always is, but it's not enough to save the film.)
Morally simplistic filmmaking is fine sometimes. It can be fun. But it belongs nowhere near a movie like this, which advances a real argument about the nature of journalism and really does try to tell an important story. What Vanderbilt and company don't understand is that they're not making a movie about journalists crusading against those in power; they're making a movie about journalists who thought they were doing that, then got one — seemingly tiny, seemingly inconsequential, but ultimately disastrous — thing wrong.
Truth expands throughout the country in the weeks to come.