Friday, October 30, 2015

Truth (2015)

I've been meaning to write reviews of The Martian, Sicario, and Goodnight Mommy for weeks now. All of those are much better and more interesting films than Truth, and each deserves attention in its own right. I'll get to them. But I just saw Truth, written and directed by Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and as I'm sitting here it's making my blood boil.

On a purely cinematic level, there's really nothing wrong with Truth, and indeed as I was watching it I was basically caught up in its mix of political thriller and melodrama. The ostensibly-behind-the-scenes story of the infamous CBS Killian documents scandal at "60 Minutes" that brought down producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and legendary anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) is more than watchable. It's often gripping, and is even quite moving in parts. It starts off kind of stiff and fakey (the scene where Mapes is being "interviewed" by her seven-year-old son really should have been left on the cutting room floor), but it quickly picks up steam once the central narrative kicks into gear. It's thrilling to see Mapes and her team (including Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, and Elizabeth Moss) put the story together, and more so to watch the story then fall apart.

It wasn't until after I left the theater and really thought about it that the movie started to get under my skin. It's like a competently made gourmet dish that tastes good while you're eating it but gives you the rankest gas on the car ride home.

I don't talk about it much (or even really think about it anymore, frankly), but I was a journalism major in college and very much wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I graduated right at the end of the 90s, when the Internet started taking its toll and newspapers started conspicuously slashing budgets and selling out their credibility for more advertising bucks and deeper political connections. I saw this happen even at the small-town paper where I worked, and it quickly left a sour taste in my mouth.

But for four or five years there, I was quite serious about it. I was one of the many, many teenagers who heard the story of Woodward and Bernstein and thought "I want to do that." I studied the history and internalized the code of ethics that makes objective news reporting one of the most important pillars of a functioning democracy. And that respect — even reverence — for the profession has stuck with me. It's what made the whole "Rathergate" scandal (as this controversy came to be known) so hard to take when it went down.

Let's face some hard facts here. CBS, Mapes, and Rather fucked up. They fucked up big. They had a pre-existing narrative they wanted to tell (that President George W. Bush had not only used his family connections to get out of Vietnam, but that he hadn't even lived up to the bare minimum of his duties in the Texas Air National Guard) and — under pressure to deliver the report before 2004 elections — made a series of grievous, frankly unforgivable errors in bringing the story to air. The documents that served as the linchpin of their story were not properly vetted and, while never definitively proven to be forgeries, should never have been used. They then spent weeks digging their heels in as the story imploded, going to absurd lengths to defend it before finally throwing in the towel.

The most maddening thing about the scandal to me (as a liberal) is that the substance of the story is very likely true. But CBS's epically shitty reporting became the story, and Bush sailed right on into a second disastrous term.

Now, more than 10 years later, Vanderbilt has adapted Mapes's memoir and brought forth a piece of cinematic apologia as stunning in its disingenuousness as any major motion picture I've ever seen. Both Redford and Blanchett are very, very good in this film, and I have no reason to question the earnestness of their portrayals. But their considerable talents have been put to use in a way I find truly nefarious, in a film that simply doesn't deserve them.

Truth would have us believe that Mapes is the victim here. It glosses over the many, many mistakes she made as a journalist and then, when she is challenged on those mistakes, presents the challengers as a bunch of mean, chauvinistic bullies looking for any excuse to bring this principled woman down. It presents the mistakes as almost unavoidable, but spends so little time on the bad decisions that lead to those mistakes as to have us believe they didn't happen at all. It presents Rathergate as something that happened to Mapes and Rather, not something they brought upon themselves. Blanchett is given an Oscar-baity speech at the end where she gets to rail against the system that has put her career on the line, and the way the scene is staged and the music swells triumphantly, we're very clearly meant not to question her. When someone finally does, he's literally shot as if he's a Bond villain. They should have just given him a white cat to malevolently stroke and been done with it.

It's true that Mapes was a celebrated news producer whose work brought to light some very important pieces of news, the most important of which was the Abu Ghraib scandal (a story for which she won a Peabody after being fired from CBS). I did not want or expect this movie to be a hit job. But by trying to tell her side of the story, it overcorrects so wildly that it only reinforces the negative image she has been saddled with for the last decade. There was a way to tell this story — dramatically, honestly — as the human tragedy it was without vilifying her any further. That's the movie I wanted to see.

I love movies about reporters and wish there were more of them. But this is not one I'd recommend.