Truth is Spotlight’s more depressing cousin, another investigative procedural but this time, the outcome is less celebratory. Based on her own book, Truth tells the account of Mary Mapes, the 60 Minutes producer who oversaw the story on then-President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. The report was initially about whether or not President Bush shirked his duty while in the National Guard, but it became about the memos that were held up as proof of preferential treatment. Were they forged? We still don’t know for sure, and we probably never will, and the ambiguity of the case hangs over Truth, leaching some of energy from the film.
The directorial debut of screenwriter James Vanderbilt, who also adapted Mapes’s book, Truth is tightly plotted and well-paced, and is generally a very well put together film. The cast includes Robert Redford as Dan Rather, and Topher Grace, Elizabeth Moss, and Dennis Quaid as members of the 60 Minutes investigative team, but it’s Cate Blanchett’s fiery performance as Mapes that galvanizes the film. Blanchett is at her best here, so good that suddenly she has two legitimate entries into the Oscar race between this and Carol—it will be interesting to see which one she ends up backing (probably Carol). Redford is also very good as Rather, but he doesn’t have to do much other than be venerable, which is pretty much his default state these days. A surprise is Topher Grace, who is a stand-out as conspiracy-minded researcher Mike Smith. He has a great monologue which Grace absolutely crushes for one of the best moments in the film.
But the star is Blanchett, and much of the movie is dedicated to showing Mapes not as the manipulative liberal monster the media made her out to be but as a dedicated professional working at the top of her field and under enormous pressure to deliver a story decided by network programming, not the actual needs of the reporting. The film could have hit this point harder, actually, that Mapes and her team didn’t have time to do any but the most bare-bones sourcing, pushing their document experts and sources hard to confirm information in order to meet an air date. Perhaps with more time, none of this mess ever even happens.
Truth doesn’t shy away from showing Mapes’s failures, though, even as it ultimately serves as a kind of vindication of her and Rather. We see Mapes make a couple bad calls which come back to bite her in the ass, and Blanchett nails the moment when Mapes realizes that what seemed like an innocent act of helping someone out is actually a nail in her coffin. She also kills it when she delivers Mapes’s big, vindicating monologue at the end, which is a terrifically well-written piece of dialogue. Vanderbilt’s script is strong—almost everyone gets a solid monologue at some point, except Moss, who actually doesn’t get to do much of anything—and he manages to make debates about when certain fonts existed interesting.
Overall Truth is a strong film, examining the side of the story that wasn’t really considered at the time and fueled by Blanchett’s stellar performance. A cloud of ambiguity hangs over it, which dulls its impact somewhat, but it still makes for an engrossing procedural about an investigation that didn’t pan out. There will be people who will insist on continuing the polarization of this story—Redford’s presence guarantees that a certain segment of the media will scream “liberal agenda!” at it—but it’s not hard to look past that and see Mapes’s story as a moment when the increasingly compromised nature of the news came to bear and broke the camel’s back a little. Was it politically motivated, sloppy journalism, or just the unlucky confluence of dodgy documents, squirrely sources, and a news show compromised by its parent company’s relationship with the White House? I don’t know, man. And neither does the movie.