Movie Review: Truth (2015)
“You haven’t got it.”
That’s what Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) tells Woodward and Bernstein (Redford and Hoffman) about an early Watergate story in “All the President’s Men.” So he slashes huge chunks out of it, sticks in the back pages, tells his reporters to get better stuff next time.
It’s probably what should have been said to Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), the “60 Minutes II” producer, who, like a lot of the press, had been digging into a story about the activities of Pres. George W. Bush when he was with the Texas Air National Guard from 1968 to 1973. How did he get in? Was he AWOL in 1972? How did he get out almost a year early? It’s the middle question that’s the humdinger, of course, and in September 2004 she finally gets a source and a document, the so-called Killian memo, that indicates Bush had been working on political campaigns rather than doing his duty in the early ’70s. POTUS had been AWOL. In the middle of a presidential campaign, this was a potential bomb. But it blew up in her face. Ours, too, you could say.
Bradlee’s line is also what should have been said to the national media in 2004, which focused myopically on the forged Killian memo and ignored the rest of the story, which is a story about good ol’ boy Texas privilege. The memo was forged, in other words, but its contents were true. This means that during the 2004 presidential campaign, the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, who served in Vietnam and earned a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and three Purple Hearts, was questioned relentlessly over his service (see: swiftboating), while the Republican president, who labeled himself a “wartime president,” and who fought the Vietnam War from the safety of Texas with time off for bad behavior, sailed through unaffected. The coward was seen as a hero and the hero smeared as a coward. And all of this from a media that Republicans continue to label “liberal.”
Finally, sadly, Bradlee’s line needs to be repeated to James Vanderbilt, the writer-director of “Truth.” He made a pretty good movie from Mapes’ book. But he didn’t get it.
Corporate has some questions
The first half isn’t bad. Mapes and her team, including Mike Smith (Topher Grace), Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) and Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), go over the evidence, gather new evidence, including the Killian memo from Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), and finally air the story behind Dan Rather (Robert Redford, perfectly suggesting rather than imitating the news anchor). That’s fun. We get a good shorthand on the issues and a nice dynamic among the players. True, Lucy gets short shrift, and the Lt. Col. calls the short-haired-but-bearded Smith “hippy” several times; but there’s snap and crackle.
Then pop. The story airs and Vanderbilt shows us people around the country, in various public spaces (airport, etc.), watching the episode with faces uplifted and serious, while transcendent music wells in the background. It’s not only wrong—since part of the story will be recanted—it’s a ripoff of Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” when Lowell Bergman’s “60 Minutes” piece on tobacco insider Jeffrey Wigand finally aired. That moment was truly transcendent, since it justified all the shit Wigand (and Bergman) went through to air it. And this isn’t that. So that put me off straightaway.
Then it got worse.
Once questions arise about whether the Killian memo was a forgery—see: fonts, spacing, superscript—our team does the following:
- Searches for evidence to refute those charges (and finds some)
- Re-interviews Lt. Col. Burkett and finds out he’s kind of nuts
- Follows CBS Corporate’s directives
The bigger problem: The way Mapes struggles on the way down isn’t interesting to me. She breaks too easily, and lashes out when she shouldn’t. She keeps fighting the wrong fight—mostly with her father, a conservative who beat her as a child. At one point, she reads blog comments where she’s called “a witch,” and crumples. I’m like: Really? Rule No. 1 of the Internet age: Never read the comments section. It’s our “Never get off the boat.”
Here are two more quotes from the aforementioned better movies about journalism:
- “Corporate has some questions.” – The Insider
- “Fuck it, let’s stand by our boys.” – All the President’s Men
The first quote is the opening salvo in CBS’s move to squelch the Wigand story in “The Insider.” This was in the mid-1990s. Bergman had a story that was completely solid and he still had to fight to get it on the air because of concerns over litigation and corporate profits and possible mergers. Mapes should’ve known the entity she was dealing with.
The second quote is again from Jason Robards’ Ben Bradlee, and it’s after Woodstein screws up. They write an article stating that, in an FBI investigation into the Watergate break-in, Hugh Sloan named White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman as the third man to control the slush fund of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). It was and wasn’t true. Haldeman was the third man to control the fund but Sloan hadn’t named him because he’d never been asked. The quote is Bradlee’s solution: he issues his own non-denial denial. He and publisher Katherine Graham stand by their reporters, who, over time, uncover the rest of it. And it brings down a corrupt president.
That’s the key difference between Mapes/Rather and Woodward/Bernstein: CBS didn’t stand by their boys. They made a corporate decision to avoid risk and ensure profit because they are a corporation, while Bradlee/Graham made a human decision to stand by their boys because they’re, well, human beings. You could say this is the key difference between the world I grew up in and the world as it’s run now.
It’s a downward cycle:
- 1970s: the company stands by its reporters and the story gets out.
- 1990s: the company betrays its reporters but the story gets out.
- 2000s: the company betrays its reporters and the story doesn’t get out.
You get an inkling of all this in Rather’s speech about when networks realized news divisions could make profit—ironically, because of “60 Minutes”—but it’s not enough. You need to dramatize it, not speechify it. I don’t know how you do that, but that’s what needs to be done.