Investigative journalism. Once there was a time it was the crowning glory of the news. Now, not so much. Trying to find a culprit for what happened (or a turning point, or something, anything, to say about it) is Truth, based on the book by ex-journalist Mary Mapes.
After successfully exposing the Abu Ghraib torture scandal on an edition of CBS 60 Minutes, producer/journalist Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) decides to bring another controversial story to light. With the 2004 election fast approaching, she begins nosing around sitting president George W. Bush’s military past. With a great team around her, first and foremost mythic anchorman and father figure Dan Rather (Robert Redford), her piece questions the President’s dedication to the American cause. But when the documents presented in the piece are contested as fake, and her sources revealed to be less than trustworthy, Mapes finds herself and her life’s work spiraling out of control, in a wave of economic and political interests, journalistic ethics (or lack thereof), and the bending of the truth to fit those in power.
Of course, the biggest problem with Truth is its release date, too close to thematically similar yet undoubtedly superior Spotlight. It also feels somewhat dated – as a political film, it only appears now, when the waters are relatively safe to its perspective on what has happened. The focus of Mapes investigation is also a bit lost on non-American audiences – we couldn’t really care less about little Bush’s antics in the military paperwork archives. The universal appeal of the story is more related to the reasons the investigation failed so gloriously, but on that, Truth doesn’t deliver. What could have been the film’s greatest strength ends up being its ultimate weakness – it seems afraid to make a stand, casually drifting between its themes without fully committing to one. After the 2 hour runtime, the audience feels as if not much has been said, and is left mildly indifferent to everything it has seen, by a film that’s at once overlong and not expansive enough.
James Vanderbilt, mostly known as a writer and producer (Darkness Falls, Zodiac), here makes his debut as a director, and alas, you can tell. His own script lacks the direction an outsider would maybe be able to bring, and the actors, even usually brilliant Cate Blanchett, are a shadow of their usual selves. This is even more unfortunate when the casting was nailed so perfectly – from the nice touch of having All the President’s Men Robert Redford as the charismatic Rather or the more controversial choice of Dennis Quaid as Lt Colonel Roger Charles. All in all, Truth just seems like a regrettable waste of resources.
It may be a requiem to investigative journalism but, in the end, Truth could have done so much better. And let’s not, ever, confuse the greatness of the theme with the poor quality of the execution: no matter our political affiliation, the film still shoots itself on the foot by never committing to what is the real story behind what happened. In the end, it feels more like a (poor and scrambled) attempt to justify what Mapes did (ie, not check her sources properly, one of the basics of journalism) than a political denouncement. If only the film had half the bite of her 60 Minute pieces.
Truth is released in UK cinemas from 4th March 2016