- James Vanderbilt
Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 4; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
When Jeremiah had finished his message, saying everything the Lord had told him to, the priests and false prophets and all the people in the Temple mobbed him, shouting, “Kill him! Kill him! What right do you have to say the Lord will destroy this Temple like the one at Shiloh?” they yelled. “What do you mean—Jerusalem destroyed and not one survivor?”
“What is truth?” Pilate asked. Then he went out again to the people…
Truth forever on the scaffold; wrong forever on the throne.
James Russell Lowell, “The Present Crisis”
In war, truth is the first casualty.
Aeschylus, Greek tragic dramatist
Judging by director/writer James Vanderbilt’s film, truth is also “the first casualty” in politics—though politics has been described as a form of war, too often almost as vicious as those waged with guns. Based on Mary Mapes’s 2005 book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, the film takes us into the newsroom and offices at CBS during the months leading up to the presidential elections of 2004. Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), a highly respected journalist for 60 Minutes has broken the story of the abuse of prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib by the U.S. military and is now working on another report for 60 Minutes II, one that will become even more controversial—so much so that it will cost news anchor Dan Rather and producer Mapes their careers.
Drawn by the rumors concerning how President Bush spent his days during the Vietnam War, Ms. Mapes forms a team consisting of freelance writer Mike Smith (Topher Grace), who’s been looking into President Bush’s service in the National Guard for some time; Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), a Vietnam vet whose military procedure knowledge is needed; and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), a journalism professor. They seek to find out how George Bush was able to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War by serving in the National Guard in 1968. Was special influence used to get him a coveted berth in the Texas Air National Guard? Then Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), a National Guard veteran offers her some documents that appear to prove that Bush did not fulfill his service obligations.
The papers indicate that he did not show up for his physical and that he did not serve out an entire month of his contract during the period before he was discharged. This has been covered up, with the original documents either destroyed or buried somewhere. They consult several experts some of whom identify the documents’ signature as that of the commander’s, so she and her colleague Dan Rather gain the permission of their superiors’ to go ahead with the expose. 60 Minutes will be preempted for two weeks in the fall, so the team rushes the story because they do not want to air it in October when they could be accused of ambushing candidate President Bush—the President and John Kerry are locked in a tight race, with the latter being attacked by the swift-boat ad campaign—and also, of course, the CBS crew wants to get the story out before their rivals do.
When the report is broadcast the 60 Minutes II story seems like a journalistic triumph for Rather and Mapes and team, but their triumph proves short-lived when a right wing blogger attacks the papers they thought were the smoking gun. He argues that the superscript “th” was available only when computers came into use, not on the typewriters in use during the 60’s, so the papers must be a forgery. This shifts the story from Bush to the journalists, perhaps the worst thing that can happen to reporters. As the controversy rages the CBS upper echelon, 60 Minutes’ executive Producer (David Lyons) and CBS News President Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood) becoming increasingly nervous about the bad publicity. Mapes and Rather try to retain their superiors’ backing, but when their original source Lt. Col. Bill Burkett proves unreliable and a former Texas governor goes back on his testimony, the network officials cave in and appoint a special panel of lawyers to investigate the investigation—this in spite of the fact that the team discovers that some electric typewriter models were indeed able to print the superscript “th” back in the Sixties. The facts of the original story no longer matter to CBS’s rival media organizations, all of them gladly attacking the credibility of their once dominant rival.
CBS appoints an independent panel of lawyers, dominated by such Republicans and conservatives as Dick Thornburgh, President George H.W. Bush’s U.S. Attorney General during the majority of his administration. You can almost see their knives drawn and sharpened when Mapes appears before them, accompanied by her lawyer. The hearing becomes an inquisition. Despite her lawyer’s counsel to “keep calm,” she cannot keep from speaking her mind, thus insuring her dismissal—and along with her, the forced retirement of anchorman Dan Rathers. Her speech and that of Rather’s poignant apology and resignation annoucement on TV are powerful moments. Also memorable is the scene in which Mapes’ asociate Mike Smith, ordered to leave the CBS building, lambasts 60 Minutes II executive producer Josh Howard (David Lyons) for giving in to corporate political interests and not backing the team.
The politics of viewers will no doubt figure into their reaction to this admitedly liberal-biased film. It is after all, based on Mary Mapes’ book. Is this the tragic story of martyred journalists, or that of reckless media reporters who took short-cuts in their reporting, and thus who received their just deserts? Both the book and film acknowldge some of the latter, though they argue that their rushed deadline due to many circumstances was to blame and not their intentions to take down Bush. Viewers will see the meaning in the title in various ways—the truth of the story (are its “facts” true or forged?); the story of the pursuit of truth; the way in which “truth” is perceived by opposing factions.
Whatever the truth of the film, all agree that Kate Blanchet and Robert Redford have turned in sterling performances. She was outstanding as the Irish journalist who was literally martyred in the film of the same name Veronica Guerin, and here too she is the passionate advocate who spends long, grueling hours away from her supportive husband Mark (John Benjamin Hickey) and young son in order to pursue what she believes is the truth. (Their residence is out of state) Mr. Redford does not look like Dan Radford, but he plays him with the authentic note of gravity and sincerity that viewers long associated with the award-winning newscaster.
The film will leave some with a chilling feeling by its claim that vociferous powers can derail even a powerful giant like CBS by threatening its profits. When confronted with a damning story, attack the veracity of its reporters—a tactic we see some current presidential candidates employing when their facts and stories of their past are questioned by reporters. CBS, once regarded as the gold standard for truth in reporting, is now just a part of “the liberal media,” and therefore an object of suspicion and derision by a large part of the public. It seems that there are now many who, like Pilate, have little interest in getting at truth, especially if it conflicts with entrenched beliefs. Instead, we join with Pilate by turning away to wash our hands of any responsibility in failing to find or to uphold truth. Whereas Mapes and Rather are not to be equated with the prophet Jeremiah, nonetheless, when journalists, who do indeed have a “calling” to ferret out facts, broadcast facts that raise questions about the powerful, they can expect a reaction similar to that of the enemies of that Hebrew prophet. Neither Mapes nor Rather faced physical death, but the CBS brass did kill their journalistic careers. The film ends with the note that Mary Mapes has not worked in television news since her firing. Given the importance of her next to last story, the revelation of the abuse of prisoners in Iraq, our world is the poorer for this.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2015 issue of VP, available for purchase on this site.