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Toronto 2015: Dan Rather on journalism’s ‘hot, hard flame’ in ‘Truth’

2015 Toronto International Film Festival: “Truth”

Actor Topher Grace, left, former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, actress Elisabeth Moss and writer-director James Vanderbilt attend the “Truth” premiere Saturday during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

(Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)

Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett have lead roles in the feature film “Truth.” Neither was present at the movie’s world premiere Saturday evening at the Toronto International Film Festival, but the event did not lack for star power. The main attraction was television journalist Dan Rather, who received a standing ovation and who choked up with emotion when he came onstage after the film.

Adapted by director James Vanderbilt from a book by Mary Mapes, the film tells the story of how Mapes, then a producer for “60 Minutes” and CBS, pulled together the story on George W. Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard. Presented not long before the 2004 presidential election, the story questioned whether Bush benefited from any favors regarding his service. Read on-air by Rather, the story quickly dissolved amid allegations of forged documents and faulty reporting, leading to Mapes’ termination and Rather’s resignation as CBS News anchor.

The film in some way splits into two, a procedural of how the story came together, then a recounting of how it fell apart. Vanderbilt makes his directorial debut with a film that often has the same obsessive sense of detail as the work for which he is best known, as screenwriter of David Fincher’s “Zodiac.”

FULL COVERAGE: Toronto and other film festivals

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Much will likely be heard in the coming months of Blanchett’s fiery performance as Mapes, who is portrayed as thorny and complicated but driven by passion and idealism. The film, which opens in theaters Oct. 16, builds toward a climactic speech in which Mapes tells off the panel assigned to investigate her reporting. It’s a knockout moment for Blanchett.

In a Q&A after the movie, Vanderbilt confessed he had not seen the news report when it aired but had been aware of its fallout. Only later did he begin to learn the fuller story.

“I always loved journalism; I think it’s an incredibly noble pursuit and really wanted to do something about it and in that realm,” Vanderbilt said. “And there was an excerpt of Mary’s book that ran in Vanity Fair, and I read that and I was, like, ‘Oh my gosh, if even half of this is what happened, this is a really interesting, phenomenal story.’”

Elisabeth Moss and Topher Grace, who have supporting roles, were present Saturday, but the night seemed to belong to Rather, 83. Most questions were directed his way, the crowd perhaps recognizing it’s unlikely he would be back for a film festival Q&A again any time soon.

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Asked if one story stood out to him from his time with “60 Minutes” and CBS, Rather replied, “The Abu Ghraib story was a once-in-a-lifetime story, and of the stories I’ve done, that meant the most to me -- partly because it was a story [that] when it first started, I hated the story and I didn’t want to read the story.

“Let’s face it, I’ve been really lucky and mighty blessed to be able to follow my passion for covering news for a lifetime, but you asked for one story, and if I had to point to one story, the Abu Ghraib story would be it.”

Throughout the Q&A, Rather seemed genuinely moved, whether by the movie or the audience’s reaction to him. On seeing himself portrayed by Redford, he said, “It’s both an honor and very humbling, not a word generally associated with people who are on television.”

Asked for advice to a journalism student he noted, “Generally speaking, present company excluded, it doesn’t pay very well.”

Rather became most emotional when asked if there was anything he would do differently, a question that brought a surprised gasp from much of the audience, considering the procedural that had just unfolded onscreen.

“Of course I’d do a lot of things differently,” he said. “Journalism is not an exact science; it is on its very best days a kind of crude art. I’ve certainly made my mistakes and have the scars to show for it, many of the times my own fault.”

As he finished his thought, he began to choke up a bit as he said, “Of course there are plenty of things I would do over, which is one of the reasons I spend a lot of my time now trying to practice humility and modesty and tremendous gratitude.”

Rather than dwelling on the missteps of the past, however, Rather spoke toward the future.

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“My hope for the film is that it doesn’t end a chapter, that it opens a new chapter,” Rather said, “about how we journalists, and therefore the consumers of news, can get quality journalism with integrity in the new digital age. It takes passion, and if you don’t burn with a hot, hard flame to do it, then think twice about getting into it.”

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