Is "swift-boating" still part of the common lexicon? The political and cultural climate has moved far and fast since the skirmishes of the 2004 presidential election, a time the movie "Truth" looks to re-examine.
Adapted by screenwriter James Vanderbilt in his directing debut, the film is based on the book "Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power," by former CBS News producer Mary Mapes, who after the success of reports on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal attempted to untangle the convoluted history of then-President George W. Bush's military service in the Air National Guard in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The "60 Minutes II" report that aired in September 2004 was based in part on documents whose authenticity were immediately called into question, creating a furor that led to Mapes being fired and paved the way for the resignation of Dan Rather from CBS News.
"Truth" is a movie curiously in conflict with itself. There is a constant shift between granular detail and big-picture sweep that the movie never fully resolves, as serious discussions of type fonts and spacing between lines and letters on the military documents fit awkwardly with musings on what-it-all-means.
Mapes' book and Vanderbilt's screenplay present the incident as a harbinger of the deeply divided and contentious climate in which the news is now delivered each day, and a demarcation point regarding the importance of journalism along with the intersection of the Internet and media ownership.
Which all might be a bit dry were it not for the sparkling performances by Cate Blanchett as Mapes and Robert Redford as Rather, who provide two distinct approaches on movie-star dynamics. Blanchett attacks her role while Redford lets it come to him. There are also fine supporting performances from Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace, Stacy Keach and Bruce Greenwood. Noni Hazlehurst delivers a devastating monologue as the wife of the man who first delivers suspect documents to Mapes.
Vanderbilt is best known as the screenwriter of David Fincher's "Zodiac," another film dense with historical and factual information. Fincher as a director was better able to handle the sheer volume of data in that story, letting its weight provide momentum, with a nimble grace that Vanderbilt is unable to bring to "Truth." It is not hard to wonder if "Truth" the screenplay might have rang its bell a bit more clearly in the hands of another director, another set of eyes and hands to distill the material.
The film plays best as a forensic procedural leading up to and receding from the fulcrum point of the September 2004 broadcast of that now infamous story on Bush's National Guard service, an examination of how the story came together and how quickly it came apart. (A subsequent internal investigation by CBS found that the disputed documents could be neither verified fully nor discounted completely.) For anyone who knows what is to come after the broadcast, a number of early scenes on the reporting of the story feel like moments just before a car crash, where in retrospect the accident could have been avoided, but in the moment it is coldly inevitable.
The post-broadcast investigation builds to a magnificent series of scenes in which Blanchett as Mapes spars with a panel made up of the privileged and elite, delivering a feisty declaration of principles that is uncynically the stuff of awards-season clip packages. Blanchett has become such an otherworldly screen persona — having played Cinderella's stepmother, a queen, an elf, a delusional socialite, Katharine Hepburn and Bob Dylan — that seeing her play an ostensibly regular person now feels unusual. Blanchett still brings a regal bearing to her earthy depiction of realness, her tousled hair flicked precisely as to always be perfectly imperfect.
Redford is an unusual choice at first in the role of Rather and the actor doesn't change his hair color or seemingly make much effort to look like the real television newsman. But eventually Redford's own presence and understated charm take hold and the actor doesn't so much inhabit the role as simply make it his own, bending it toward his own gravitational pull. It's a trick of hiding in plain sight — at some point the actor stops reading onscreen like Robert Redford as Robert Redford and suddenly is Robert Redford as Dan Rather.
The film ends with Rather's final broadcast and there's a slow-motion glamour shot of Redford that is jarring for the way in which it seems to enshrine both the actor and the character as some sort of new Mount Rushmore of rustic Americana. The moment is odd for a number of reasons, feeling outside the tone of the rest of the movie, but most of all for how it shoves Mapes to the side of her own story.
Even as the film clearly conveys both the how and why of the mistakes made in reporting and airing the Bush National Guard story — mistakes that also shed no real light on the veracity of the story's core claims — there are no ultimate conclusions to be drawn from "Truth." There is no smoking gun, deathbed confession or definitive answer; rather there is a web of shifting perspectives and conflicting motives. And for a movie about contentious recent history and the contemporary media environment within which that history is being written, that air of conflict and uncertainty may remain the most genuinely honest result one can expect.
Rated: R for language and a brief nude photo
Running Time: 2 hours and 1 minute
Playing: Arclight Hollywood, AMC Century City and The Landmark