TRUTH (Movie Review)

*1/2 out of ****

Rated R
for strong language

 and a brief nude photo
Released: October 16, 2015
 limited; expands October 23 and 30
Runtime: 121 minutes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacey Keach

You know something’s wrong when the movie that wants to lionize a TV network’s news reporters is condemned by the network itself.

That’s the case with Truth, an ironic title for a shamelessly skewed movie. It’s based on the 2004 CBS 60 Minutes II election year exposé about President George W. Bush’s military service, a report that went horribly, ethically wrong. It led to the disgraced exit of legendary anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) from CBS, and the firing of the segment’s producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett).

But in the hands of “Aaron Sorkin wannabe” writer/director James Vanderbilt (of the recent Amazing Spider-Man films), Truth looks to rant through every complexity with a snarky self-righteous swagger. Its intent isn’t to examine the case impartially; it’s to finish what Mapes started, but with no more evidence than she had to work with and only compounded bitterness. This unabashedly biased take (based on Mapes’ own book) doesn’t play like truth, but myth.

The 2004 CBS report claimed to prove that Bush went AWOL from his stateside Vietnam service in the Air National Guard, and that the military covered it up. This scandalous piece of news was a potential bombshell, a boon to the Kerry Campaign, and could’ve sabotaged a Bush second term – until the very documents on which the whole report was based were proven to be forgeries.

Truth doesn’t look so much to set the record straight. It wants to smear every person and institution who dared to hold Mapes and Rather accountable – including CBS News itself which, in an official statement, best sums up the whole movie, saying it “tries to turn gross errors of journalism and judgment into acts of heroism and martyrdom.” Oh boy, does it ever.

It’s not that there wasn’t enough smoke to start asking if there was a fire somewhere, but Mapes, Rather, and their team seemed so sure that they were about to be the next Woodward and Bernstein that they allowed provocative hearsay to guide their analysis of what was – and wasn’t – documented. But the film, which should’ve been (at least in part) about this team’s overzealous hubris is, instead, singularly and adamantly about how everyone was (and is) so totally unfair to them.

As a filmmaker, Vanderbilt overplays his hand so much at every turn that even the cheesiest episode of The West Wing would start shaking its head, aghast. It presents this band of news reporters as heirs to fervent 60’s radicals – as if that’s a journalistic virtue. Their only character flaw is that they obsess too much (making the hint of any other flaw forgivable). Sure, they can be raucous and rude, but that’s just a charming side effect to their dogged tenacity, articulate sass, and superpower to cite detailed facts of any relevant historical precedent at a moment’s notice. Or, at the very least, have the perfect comeback.

They’re not just heroes of the press but of America itself, yet it’s their tragic misfortune to live in a cutthroat world that’s not willing to rise up to their own level of courage. At best, their adversaries (which is nearly everyone) are portrayed as weak; at worst they’re wolves. In other words, it’s a melodramatic mess that can’t see its own sanctimonious forest for its arrogant trees.

There is some truth in the weeds of all of this, but it’s the liberal fantasy version of how it went down – complete with a final Rather speech that lectures us, the audience, about how we’ve broken our sacred trust with idealistic news institutions, along with a final grandstanding monologue for Mapes in which she’s allowed to tear the Board of Special Investigators a new one. If Aaron Sorkin ever sees this, you’d hope he’d look at it and ask, “My TV stuff wasn’t that bad, was it?” (Sorry Aaron, a lot of it was.)

Truth was produced by a film company called, yes, Mythology Entertainment. When the movie opens, seeing that company’s logo be directly followed by the title “Truth” is almost as clueless (or galling) as everything that follows, including the firings that come near the end. They’re filmed in slow-motion, as if each martyred reporter is dying on the field of battle. And to be clear, if a movie about the “John Kerry swiftboaters” was made with this degree of bald-faced mythologizing it’d be as equally eye-rolling.

Truth isn’t looking to live up to its title; it simply has an ax to grind. That much is confirmed when the film also makes the case that if Mapes hadn’t suffered a family tragedy during the 2000 campaign, Al Gore would’ve been President. I’m not even kidding. Truth grinds its ax with schmaltzy sentimentality, too, as it portrays the bond between Rather and Mapes not just as trusted colleagues but surrogate father and daughter. These bastions of noble purity are railroaded by a rigged system and left for dead by the network they’ve been loyal to (except for that time, you know, when they betrayed the network with their ideologically-compromised sloppiness).

That official CBS statement gave an accurate conclusion as well: “It’s astounding how little truth there is in Truth. There are, in fact, too many distortions, evasions, and baseless conspiracy theories to enumerate them.” Not that you have to take their word for it. The complete and total lack of objectivity is all up there on the screen to see, in all of its elitist pretense.

Truth is red meat for Bush haters while failing to challenge skeptics in any credible way, and is too openly desperate at rewriting the history it longs to revise. It takes what Stephen Colbert mocked for seven years on his “Report” – not needing pesky facts to know that something’s true; just your gut – and portrays it as valor.

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