Just two months before the 2004 presidential election, 60 Minutes II aired a segment on CBS questioning whether or not George W. Bush actually served in the National Guard between the years 1972 and 1973. It was the kind of story that had the power to change the outcome of Bush's potential re-election. CBS provided what they claimed was authentic document evidence of the President getting preferential treatment from his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Killian, so he wouldn't have to serve in Vietnam—evidence that could have been a career-killer for Bush. Except with each new loose thread in the story, it didn't take very long for the whole thing to completely unravel, instead biting the CBS team in the ass. The documents were immediately questioned and scrutinized, then deemed fabricated by various sources, swiftly ruining the careers of anchor Dan Rather and CBS News producer Mary Mapes, who were responsible for the story. Rather was forced to step down as anchor (though, at 72, he was already of retirement age) while Mapes, then 48, was less lucky—she never ended up working in television again. This scandal—referred to as Memogate, Rathergate, or the Killian documents controversy—is the premise of the new docudrama, Truth.
Truth—the directorial debut of James Vanderbilt (screenwriter of Zodiac)—takes an unveiled bias despite the objectivity it implies in its title. Based on Mapes' 2005 memoir Truth and Duty, the film mostly exonerates Rather and Mapes, portrayed by Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett. It's impossible not to recall 1976's All the President's Men, in which Redford plays one of the journalists behind Watergate, but Truth is all about Blanchett, who really shines in—and carries—an otherwise bad good movie. (Or is it a good bad movie?) There are a lot of themes introduced, but are stated in rather sweeping gestures. What is the truth? We don't really find out. Instead, Truth is very much a one-woman show (emphasis, once again, on Blanchett's performance), despite the other A-list characters who make up the movie.
Early on we're introduced to Mapes' wise-cracking team—ex-military Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), the scrappy, junk food-eating researcher Mike Smith (Topher Grace), and professor Lucy Scott (played by Elisabeth Moss in an unfortunate throwaway role)—in an empowering "let's fight the man" first chapter. It's an exciting opening; even knowing the outcome, you get swept up in the mission doe-eyed. When we're also reminded that Mapes was the one who broke the Peabody-winning story of the tortures at Abu Ghraib on 60 Minutes, there's a sense of ease and trust. These people know what they're doing. This is no amateur hour.
Except... It was a series of amateur mistakes that got Mapes and her team in deep shit. The movie makes it impossible not to sympathize with her, the same kind of bias many people take issue with in Truth. But even a less-than-astute viewer can also see that Mapes, as passionate as she is, should have been more thorough. No one thought to check the documents against a standard letter made on Microsoft Word—the first real crack in their takedown—while facts were shoddily "confirmed" over the phone (something a source tries to take back later on). As far as dramatic movies go, Truth incorporates an exciting ticking time bomb element, in which Mapes et al. scramble to get the story on air, way ahead of expected schedule. It's also notable that this rush probably led to messy reporting.
There's still no 100-percent proof that the documents were indeed fabricated, as widely believed. In order to completely prove they are false, an expert would have to compare them with the real documents, which are unavailable. Rather and Mapes have always maintained the the nut of the story was true, even if the presentation of facts may have gotten out of hand. Truth clings onto this very small sliver of hope, blaming the public's obsession with font sizes and minute details in what should have otherwise been a Bigger Picture story. Mapes keeps bringing up the fact that they're being blamed for simply "asking questions," though it's pretty clear she does more than just ponder. She points her finger, and you know what they say about finger-pointing—point one finger, three point back. She had a very deliberate purpose with her story, and the timing—airing right before the election—was its most deliberate shot. With a story of that level you would think a professional like Mapes would be more thorough, but perhaps set so intently on her version of the truth, she was blind to all the red flags.
What Truth wants us to do is sympathize with Mapes—it does a damn good job of it too, using Blanchett, who between intense go-getter moments, has surprisingly human ones too (one scene, in which she breaks down on the phone with her abusive and disapproving father is one of Truth's realest moments). She moves through the power dynamics with the kind of grace Blanchett is gifted with, all while sporting the working woman's smeared mascara (was this a look?). While Dan Rather is the bigger name, he's used more like a puppet, acting as the celebrity face to carry out the deed—this happens both from Mapes and CBS' side. Her team, too, is rather lackluster compared to her. But Mapes—thanks to Blanchett—becomes the star of the story, and her character can almost be interpreted as a hero. The martyrdom of Mapes seems a bit much, though the generally sympathetic bias is less troubling. Mapes is human, and she's already been burned at the stake, 11 years ago. Whichever side of the story you believe in, it perhaps shouldn't be so hard to see that.