Pontius Pilate’s famous question is at the center of writer-director James Vanderbilt’s take on the notorious 2004 kerfuffle at CBS News that ultimately caused the downfall of long-time network anchor and elder statesman Dan Rather. Rather was lead correspondent on a“60 Minutes II” piece about the 1972-73 Texas Air National Guard service of President George W. Bush, then running for reelection. The story charged that Bush had used political influence to get a spot in the Guard, thus avoiding possible service in Vietnam. But it further suggested that Bush had failed to fulfill the responsibilities of his appointment, effectively going AWOL and then securing an early release from the obligation he’d committed to.
Unfortunately, some of the documents used in the story—memos dated 1972-73 and signed by Bush’s then immediate Air National Guard superior, by 2004 deceased—existed only in copies supplied by a mysterious source, a seriously ill Guard veteran who was reluctant to be named and, as it turned out, was not exactly honest about their provenance. After the program was aired, critics began to question the memos’ authenticity on technical grounds, and ultimately the validity of the supposed smoking gun, rather than the information the documents provided, became the major focus of debate. CBS higher-ups eventually decided that the team responsible for the flawed reportage had to be jettisoned to preserve their brand, and Rather was among those forced out. (He later sued the network, unsuccessfully, over his forced retirement.)
Vanderbilt’s film, based on the memoir of the segment’s producer Mary Mapes, is a rise-and-fall, or triumph-and-tragedy, retelling of this unhappy episode in modern television journalism, which touches upon the blood-sport politics had become by 2004 (the vicious “swiftboating” of John Kerry’s war record is pointedly referred to) but is basically a tale of a dogged team of reporters, on the trail of a big story, who were pressured to finish work on it quickly by superiors and then, when their haste resulted in an embarrassing failure to nail things down completely, suffered the consequences—the ruin of their careers. Deliberately left hanging is the truth of what the memos, forged or not, purported to tell. And to dive even deeper into the rabbit hole, if they were forged, who was the perpetrator, and what was the motive? (The finger usually points at Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, the source of the memos, though the film allows his wife, played by Noni Hazelhurst, a blistering speech in which she accuses the CBS team of trying to turn her husband into a scapegoat to save themselves.)
But while those are the issues of utmost importance in the case, “Truth” can’t answer them. Instead, under the workmanlike but unexceptional direction of writer-producer-turned-director Vanderbilt, it follows Mapes (Cate Blanchett), an ambitious, almost frenzied veteran of big stories, assembling and urging on her hand-picked team of researchers—Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), a Vietnam veteran; Mike Smith (Topher Grace), a scruffy but determined free agent; and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), a journalism professor—as they pore over the evidence themselves, consult with a battery of document experts and try to get substantiation of the memos’ authenticity from reluctant sources, many of whom refuse to go on the record while offering tantalizing hints of confirmation. Throughout Rather (Robert Redford) is portrayed as the paternalistic voice of caution, reminding Mapes and her colleagues of the need to make the story airtight and, after the report begins to disintegrate, showing greater concern for them than himself when their bosses—producer David Lyons (Josh Howard) and CBS News executives Betsy West (Rachel Blake) and Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood)—start thinking about ways to save the corporate reputation at any cost (and, it’s suggested, also maintain good relations with the Bush Administration). The result will be internal and external investigations that ultimately crucify the team by accusing them of shoddy. And very likely biased, practices.
What the film thus offers is what “All the President’s Men” might have been if Woodward and Bernstein had fumbled the ball and the existence of Oval Office tapes had never become public. It tries simultaneously to celebrate the dogged work of the CBS team and to show how its result was fundamentally flawed—at least in the all-important perception of the public. Predictably its basis in Mapes’ memoir gives it a certain self-serving air, and Blanchett’s intense performance, which touches on the character’s relationships with her abusive father and with her loving husband and son (John Benjamin Hickey and Connor Burke) can’t help but earn sympathy as the sharks start to circle around her. Still, one can’t escape the suggestion that Mapes did cut corners in her zeal to nail a big story in a timely fashion. Redford, meanwhile, might not look terribly like Rather, but he projects the newsman’s lofty demeanor expertly. The supporting performances—particularly by Grace, Quaid, Moss, Greenwood, Lyons and Blake—are solid without being especially distinctive, but Keach and Hazlehurst dig deeper in their relatively short turns. On the technical level the picture is more than adequate, its convincing look (by production designer Fiona Crombie and cinematographer Mandy Walker) quite remarkable given that a great deal of it was shot in Australia.
The ambiguity of “Truth” leaves it neither celebratory nor condemnatory, an interesting but slightly flat recounting of a major misstep in modern journalism.