‘Truth’ investigates TV-news missteps

It could have been one of her finest hours as a broadcast news producer at CBS, but it was instead career derailment for Mary Mapes. On the Sept. 8, 2004 broadcast of “60 Minutes II,” the veteran news producer aired a story that suggested President George W. Bush had once exploited family connections to avoid the Vietnam War.

The Iraq War was raging at the time, and Bush was fighting for reelection against Sen. John Kerry, a combat vet whose service in Vietnam was being attacked by supporters of the incumbent.

Within days of the report, helmed by CBS News anchor Dan Rather, it was Mapes and her team that became the story. The documents supporting their investigation were denounced as forgeries, and their journalist’s integrity came under intense focus. Mapes eventually lost her job and reputation, and Rather stepped down as anchor.

Mapes no longer works in television news, and she wrote a book about the experience, “Truth and Duty: the Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power,” which has been made in into the film “Truth,” opening this week.

Written and directed by James Vanderbilt, the film stars Cate Blanchett as Mapes and Robert Redford as Rather. “Even though this happened over 10 years ago, I feel this is a great time for the film to come out,” says Vanderbilt. “This was a real fulcrum point when media was beginning to dramatically shift. This was the first time the media rose up and affected a story and the newsmakers behind the story became the focus. The Internet was just beginning to have its impact and the speed of how this all happened really took them unaware. “

Vanderbilt aimed to draw audiences into the film as a detective story, and less as a lecture on investigative journalism.

“I wanted to take you on a journey with Mary and Dan,” he says. “The excitement of their jobs and how they live for this. So the first half of the movie is like a detective story and then the second is like a slow-motion car crash as it all unravels. The movie makes you think where we are in our media and our culture.”

Casting the film was key. Vanderbilt sent Blanchett the script the morning after her Oscar win for “Blue Jasmine.”

“It might not have been the smartest move. You wouldn’t think she would be interested in working with a first-time director, but to my delight she signed on,” says Vanderbilt. “The movie in a lot of ways is watching this person get torn apart, and when you think about an actor who could do that and show that range of emotion, Blanchett is obviously on top of your list.”

The only caveat was that Blanchett insisted the film be shot in Australia so she could be close to her family. “You go, well, how do we do this? And it turned out to be a great decision. There are wonderful crews and great actors there and most of the movie is interiors so it was easy to shoot that in another country,” says Vanderbilt.

It was also the first time legendary actor Redford had traveled to Australia. “I began as an actor. That’s my core and I am enjoying acting again and the experience in Australia was great,” Redford said last week.

Another co-star was Elisabeth Moss, who plays a member of the “60 Minutes” research team on the story. “It was really genius casting Redford,” says the former “Mad Men” star. “You could have found an actor that looked like Rather, but I think with Redford as Dan Rather there is this legendary quality, this X Factor, and you want to hear what they say.”

Moss admits it could be intimidating having such an icon on set. “He would come into the makeup trailer and say ‘good morning’ and I would forget what to say back,” she laughed. “It’s very difficult to get over who he is, but he is so humble. He is the least legendary person in attitude.”

Perhaps even more challenging was the day the real Mapes and Rather visited the set. “You almost feel like you are getting caught,” says Moss. “You are telling their story and then they are there in front of you.”

Rather and Mapes have given their full support to the film, attending the Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival premieres. “When Dan came to Toronto, he came onstage and teared up and it was an amazing moment, " says Vanderbilt. “It really makes you exhale as a director when you know they like it.”


KATHERINE TULICH writes about film and culture for Marquee.