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Here’s a fun game: Ask a liberal and a conservative about the time trusted news anchor Dan Rather had to retire following a story he ran on the president’s military service. You’ll likely get two very different answers.
The liberal will spin a conspiracy theory about a television network that colluded with a corrupt presidential administration, while the conservative will tell you about a liberal news icon who finally got what he deserved. It seems like our divisive political situation cannot handle a single reality—there must be two.
This is both the subject and the downfall of James Vanderbilt’s Truth. Although the film seeks to reclaim Rather from disgrace and rewrite history for the liberals, it leaves far too many holes in its argument to ever actually persuade. Still, when it treats its characters like people, not political symbols, it’s a startlingly effective character drama buoyed by a powerful performance by Cate Blanchett, once again proving she’s one of our era’s greatest actors.
The legendary newsman is only a supporting player in his own story; instead, his long-time producer Mary Mapes (Blanchett) is the protagonist. Following an award-winning story on Abu Ghraib, Mapes entices her bosses with an old story she never ran on President George W. Bush’s dubious service in the National Guard.
She and her team of reporters (Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, and Topher Grace are under-written and mostly interchangeable here) rush the story to air, and, as quickly as it airs, it starts to unravel. Witnesses change their story; experts recant their testimony. Other news agencies accuse both Rather and Mapes of leading with their political biases, and soon both their careers are in jeopardy.
To his credit, Vanderbilt doesn’t shy away from showing Mapes’ and her team’s mistakes, but he gives too much consideration to the unprovable idea that she and Rather were innocent pawns in a larger political battle. It’s not that he’s necessarily wrong—contrary to the promise implicit in the film’s title, we never find out what motivates their enemies—but the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Vanderbilt is too reverent of his subjects—particularly Rather—to scrutinize them too closely.
Still, Truth succeeds on the back of another show-stopping performance by Blanchett. Playing the vulnerable producer, she never loses sight of her character’s compelling inner struggle.
Mapes’ father abused her as a child, and as the forces conspire around her in the wake of the controversial story, her buried trauma threatens to come to the surface. Her father makes a painful appearance at one point, but it’s a different patriarchal system that provides the real threat: In a late scene, she fights for her professional life in front of an appointed panel of aggressive male lawyers (led by the excellent Dermot Mulroney). Her ability to save her job, we are told, relies on her quieting her internal instinct to fight every slur and push back against every aggression. It’s a rare film that climaxes in a show of emotional restraint. Had the filmmakers applied that sensibility to their politics, Truth could have really been worth telling.
Truth opens Friday at E Street Cinema.