“Truth” captures what’s wrong with modern-day journalism, but hardly in the way the filmmakers intended.
The movie, which opens wide on Friday, doesn’t just defend disgraced CBS News anchor Dan Rather’s 2004 attack on George W. Bush’s National Guard service with a series of cockamamie arguments. The film contends the scandal marked the death knell of investigative journalism.
What the RatherGate film inadvertently nails is the moment new media outlets humiliated a biased, big-budgeted news division.
The “heroes” of “Truth” are unblinkingly arrogant, unwilling to even consider they made mistakes while pursuing a major story. They’re also giddy at the thought of taking down a GOP president, but aghast that anyone would question their ideological fealty as a result.
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Robert Redford credibly plays Rather, the august newsman who told “60 Minutes” viewers that not only did a young George W. Bush enter the National Guard through shady circumstances, but essentially went AWOL during his service.
Rather’s report was based on a series of documents that were quickly derided as phony, first by conservative bloggers like the team at PowerLine. Mainstream media outlets like ABC soon pounced, and suddenly show producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and her CBS cohorts are scrambling to defend their handiwork.
What follows is a series of falsehoods and cherry-picked information meant to show that Rather’s team had the story dead to rights — that it was right all along, not widely discredited and eventually dismissed as lies. Only CBS threw them collectively under the bus rather than let them defend themselves, the rewrite of history says. Why wouldn’t the network support its superstar talent … and save face in the process?
The film couldn’t lionize the key players any more if it had used CGI magic to have halos float above their heads.
It’s because the network wanted to curry favor with the Bush administration over pending legislation that could earn parent company Viacom millions, or so Topher Grace screams during a particularly embarrassing sequence in the movie.
So why did CBS run the National Guard report in the first place? And what about the network’s extensive, award-winning Abu Ghraib coverage that inflicted heavy damage on Bush’s presidency?
“Truth” offers some intriguing behind-the-scenes glimpses of the news creation process. The bond between Rather and Mapes also plays out effectively. She grew up with an abusive father and sees the Texan newscaster, who took over for the avuncular news icon Walter Cronkite, as a more saintly father figure. Then again, nearly every character on Team Mapes is a saint.
The film couldn’t lionize the key players any more if it had used CGI magic to have halos float above their heads. Why did Rather become a journalist in the first place, a character asks him.
“Curiosity,” he replies, fighting the urge to pat himself on the back.
“Truth” starts laying on the partisan bromides more heavily in the third act. One scene shows the Mapes family in their home, with a pack of journalists camped outside. We see a flash of the Fox News logo, a dog whistle for liberal viewers of their evil intentions. And we’re told talk radio helped “lynch” Mapes and her investigation.
In one laughable scene, the allegedly tough Mapes is driven to tears when she reads some GOP critics saying nasty things about her. Darn those conservatives who dare question her ethics.
“Truth” clings to the notion that those documents were real all along. It explains away one typographical problem brought up by critics while ignoring multiple, equally damning flaws. Turns out those wicked conservative bloggers were the “curious” ones all along.
They’re also giddy at the thought of taking down Bush, but aghast that anyone would question their ideological fealty as a result.
And here’s one question for everyone connected to “Truth.” Any interest in a sequel blasting journalists who sat on their hands while President Obama lied … and lied some more … about his health care overhaul? (“If youi like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” “Your premiums will go down.”).
Or will “Truth 2” rage against a media eager to find audiences tiring of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, rather that pursuing it with the passion Mapes and company brought to BushGate?
There’s never a moment in “Truth” where Mapes’ team honestly questions their story, their tactics or the truth they told the American public. It’s similar to how CNBC anchor John Harwood, after outlets both left and right eviscerated his handling of Wednesday’s GOP debate, defended his handiwork as being sound journalism.
Let’s give it to Team “Truth.” They know precisely how reporters operated in 2004 … and now.