In 'Truth,' '60 Minutes' takes a licking, doesn't keep ticking

Cate Blanchett's compelling performance can't quite redeem heavy-handed docudrama

Thursday October 29, 2015 04:00 am EDT

The telejournalism docudrama Truth takes place firmly in the fall of 2004, but at least one scene feels timeless — unfortunately. When "60 Minutes" producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) sees her story about President George W. Bush's National Guard service blow up in her face, she makes the mistake of reading online comments about it. "Feminazi propagandist" is one of the nicest references to herself she sees, in a sequence that anticipates the hostility, misogyny, and threats that now seem to metastasize with every difference of opinion on the Internet.

Writer-director James Vanderbilt adapts Mapes' memoir Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, but the film doesn't quite lionize its protagonist. Impassioned but clumsy, Truth is definitely on Mapes' side — CBS has sharply disputed the film's version of events and refuses to run the its trailers — but its heavy-handed defense, however sympathetic, isn't quite persuasive.

In the weeks before the 2004 presidential election, Mapes and her reporters (played by Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, and a conspicuously underused Elisabeth Moss) approach the Texas Air National Guard question from two sides: did Bush benefit from external pressure when he enlisted during the Vietnam War, and did he fully complete his terms of service? Supporting the latter, they find a source (Stacy Keach) who claims to have explosive memos from Bush's former commanding officer.

In crafting a "60 Minutes" segment for Dan Rather (Robert Redford), Mapes and her team contend with an accelerated deadline and a tight time slot for the story, leading to some snap decisions. After broadcast, some of the sources change their stories, while the Internet runs wild with accusations that the documents are forgeries. Truth works best in dramatizing both the process of news gathering and then the corporate ass-covering that ensues when the story proves to be built on a house of cards.

Vanderbilt's script indulges in armchair psychoanalysis, suggesting that Mapes' journalistic combativeness comes from growing up with an abusive father, and that she shows Rather fierce loyalty as her surrogate dad. The dynamic gives Blanchett more emotional beats and plenty of meat to chew on as an actor, especially when the scandal threatens to cost Rather his job. Blanchett is never less than compelling, but the emphasis on daddy issues seems to serve her performance more than the political and journalistic issues raised by the script.

Redford delivers his lines with a slight Texas twang, but otherwise looks and sounds nothing like Rather. (One suspects that Quaid — who's just sitting right there next to him — could do a more persuasive imitation.) The casting seems justified by the idea that Redford's own star power and fame will serve as stand-in for Rather's, which works to a point. Given Rather's reputation as a colorful, at times prickly personality, Redford's bland approach feels like a missed opportunity.

Truth's subject has the potential to dig deeply into burden of proof issues. While Mapes ardently defends her decisions based on the information available at the time, since the documents are photocopies, she has no way to authenticate them: their validity ends up in the eye of the beholder, which proves to be an inadequate defense. If only "The Colbert Report" had been on in 2004, the film could have explored the distinction between what's "true" and what's "truthy." (2 out of 5 stars)

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