Words by: Jack Dawson
This is a really difficult film to talk about- it’s less about the quality of the film itself, and more about its historical accuracy. There are many critics who would state that fidelity to facts are less important than effectiveness of a story, but when you’re dealing with a film that is itself about accuracy and fidelity to facts the conversation tends to get set in a certain direction. And when that kind of conversation is centred on a former POTUS, one who enacted a number of dramatic and controversial messages during the birth of the information age, it becomes rather difficult to know where to toe the line.
Let’s just treat this as a synopsis of the film’s plot, rather than an affirmation of historical fact.
Way back in 2004, the USA is in a bit of a rough transition period; the Internet is beginning to rise to prominence as a form of entertainment and information, George W. Bush is about to be re-elected, and Televised News has devolved to the point where The Daily Show is the most reliable source of news in America. Enter Mary Mapes, a producer at 60 Minutes who stumbles across a hell of a story just in time for the local election. George W. Bush may have used his family’s connections to avoid the Vietnam War, skipping out on serving his country before committing his own nation to a decade long war in the present. If Mary can gather enough evidence, polish it up into something newsworthy, and have it ready in five days, she might have something that could change the course of the election.
But it all comes together without a hitch, everything is lined up, and Dan Rather presents it all with the easy confidence that he’s accumulated over the decades. And then everything goes to hell.
As a film, divorced from reality and taken on its own terms, Truth is remarkably compelling. There are a lot of nuances to American politics, especially the way those politics are presented to the American people. Alliances, regional differences, old grudges and cultural divides, all of these have to be accounted for. Truth actually does a pretty good job of that, or at the very least, it does a good job of getting all of that out of the way so we can enjoy the interactions between the different characters.
The beginning of the film is decidedly top heavy with exposition and information, and the main cast is broadly drawn enough that we don’t need much insight into their motivations and general attitude (the rabble-rousing idealist, the gruff-but-heroic veteran, the women who never say anything or do anything significant, the main character, the meddling executive, etcetera). The performances are good enough that it’s easy to get swept up in the spirit of it all; Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford in particular dominate the screen whenever they’re present.
Of course this film wasn’t released into a vacuum, and it pretty much requires the viewer to either know about or have an opinion on George W. Bush and the charges laid against him.
So, are the events of the film true? I’m not sure. It seems like it would take a semester’s worth of classes to find out, the issue is so clouded by the web of intrigue, backstabbing, and rhetoric that is American politics. Dan Rather and the film-makers seem to think so, with Rather stating:
“Naturally I was pleased, and pleasantly surprised. This film is very accurate. A film called Truth should be accurate.”
However CBS soundly disagrees, having refused to run advertisements for the film, rejecting any claims that the film serves as an accurate reflection of reality.
“There are, in fact, too many distortions, evasions and baseless conspiracy theories to enumerate them all… The film tries to turn gross errors of journalism and judgment into acts of heroism and martyrdom.”
Even setting aside the question of historical accuracy, I’m not sure that the film is especially good. It’s shot competently enough, and I was never confused about what was happening from scene to scene, but I kept finding myself voicing scepticism at what was being presented on screen. I don’t know if the real life Mary Mapes really had an abusive Father who beat her for asking questions, but it would be pretty remarkable for someone’s life to neatly fit what is otherwise a very tired Hollywood screenplay archetype.
Even if I chose to take the depiction of events at face value I’d probably end up siding with CBS. It does seem like really shoddy journalism to gloss over fact-checking on the two most integral documents to your case, and it seems less a reflection of the decline of TV news than it does a bout of criminal incompetence on the part of Team Mary Mapes.
These complaints mount over time, to say nothing of an obnoxious speech by Topher Grace and endless speeches about the good ol’ days of journalism, and tarnish an otherwise compelling movie.
This was a difficult film to talk about, though I suppose it did engage what research skills I had on the matter. If you are an expert on American politics or journalistic practices from this period I predict that this film would be extremely aggravating for you, and I foresee a long future of it being torn to pieces in university courses on journalism and film.
But if you’re just looking for something thoughtful to chew on that stars one of our best actresses, it’s probably worth a look.