"Truth" Botches Dan Rather-CBS Scandal

Even through squinted eyes Robert Redford looks nothing like Dan Rather. From jawline to hairline there’s almost no resemblance, but that’s what great actors get paid to do – pretend. It’s too bad, then, that Redford barely gets out of bed for Killian documents controversy docudrama “Truth,” proffering one of the most blasé, uninspired performances of his career in the whiniest, most sanctimonious political picture to come along in ages.

Written and directed by James Vanderbilt – the same James Vanderbilt that penned both modern classic crime saga “Zodiac” and abominable compost fire “White House Down” – “Truth” tries to shed light on the 2004 hullabaloo that sank the long tenured newsman. It fails.

In the run up to that year’s Presidential Election, Rather and his CBS team ran some decades-old memos that suggested incumbent President George W. Bush went AWOL while in the Air National Guard. Given Bush’s predilection for controversy it was unsurprising but alarming still, a media-made bombshell that might have turned the election in John Kerry’s favor.

But the documents weren’t properly vetted, as discovered by some armchair internet sleuths who found typographical anachronisms therein. Although nothing was proven, the doubt cast on Rather was enough to see him removed from his post. The guillotine would also fall on his right-hand woman, Mary Mapes. Conservatives danced on their graves.

Rather’s notoriety aside, “Truth” is based on a book by Mapes (played here by Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett) and is mostly about her and the hell that she ostensibly went through in her righteous crusade to uncover the truth about Bush’s Air National Guard service. Righteous being used half-sardonically, as the film is one-sided to the point of tipping over.

Vanderbilt’s screenplay operates under the premise that the tactics of Mapes and her team were immaterial since what they uncovered was probably true, and if not true, well intentioned. It’s a two-hour essay on how “fake” doesn’t necessarily mean “untrue,” which might be acceptable if the movie weren’t so in love with Rather and Mapes and the rest of their team.

That team is played by Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, and Topher Grace, who are all fine – “Truth” is the rare movie that knows how to use Topher Grace – but Vanderbilt seems to think there’s not a flaw among them. And not only is no voice given to the opposition – broadly drawn as misanthropic Republican internet commenters – but the script doesn’t even acknowledge that there might be one.

The result is a monsoon of confirmation bias and media hero worship, making the film something even worse than one-sided: boring.

Vanderbilt is so clearly aping left-leaning screenwriting savant Aaron Sorkin – who, even at his preachiest, is always interesting – that certain passages come off as a copy/paste job. For example, a boardroom showdown between Mapes and Republican operative Lawrence Lanpher (Dermot Mulroney) is laden with gaps where killer one-liners might be, but instead they’re occupied by odd composites of platitudes and exaggerated facial expressions.

If Vanderbilt gets one thing right, it’s the pacing. While not much to look at and strikingly bland, the picture moves well, coming in at a relatively tight 120 minutes. In a genre full of overlong, scattershot entries, “Truth” is nicely cloistered. It knows who its lead is and doesn’t subject us to too much of Redford’s airmailed performance.

But this is the epitome of preaching to the choir, a movie either terrified of challenging its target audience or, even worse, unwilling to. It makes the weakest possible case for Rather and Mapes, painting them as frail babies who were treated unfairly, despite the fact that they clearly mishandled the Killian documents story, if not outright bungled it. There’s a good, maybe even semi-exonerating film to be made of their story. This isn’t it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: October 16, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: James Vanderbilt
Screenwriter: James Vanderbilt
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Dennis Quaid, Dermot Mulroney
MPAA Rating: R (for language and a brief nude photo)