September 12, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “Truth”


The screenwriter James Vanderbilt has made his directing debut with TRUTH, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival tonight, and at times it’s clear that this is a writer’s movie:  Vanderbilt gives no fewer than three of his characters the opportunity for a Rousing Final Speech, something another director might well have toned down.  For the most part, though, he’s done a solid job telling a complicated story from the recent past.

That story became known as “Memogate.”  In 2004, during the weeks before the presidential election, a unit within CBS News led by producer Mary Mapes (played in the film by Cate Blanchett) investigated and presented a piece to be reported by Dan Rather (Robert Redford), the network’s longtime news anchor, concerning the military record of George W. Bush.  It alleged that the network had obtained copies of memos from the 1970s proving that Bush’s family had pulled strings to have him put into the National Guard rather than sent to Vietnam, and that he’d then failed even to satisfy the requirements of his Guard duty.  The truth of the underlying story is still hotly debated, but airing in the context of the “swift boat” campaign against John Kerry, Bush’s Democratic opponent, the CBS report was attacked by Republicans, bloggers and other networks (not just Fox News) as being based on falsified documents and retracted witness statements, and in the end Mapes was fired and Rather gave up his anchor chair.

Although Vanderbilt’s script is based on Mapes’ memoir, and it leaves little question about where he stands on the question of whether the CBS story was fundamentally true, Truth doesn’t shy away from the cut corners and bad judgments that gave fuel to the furor.  As much as it’s the story of a group victimized in the service of a report they passionately believed to be accurate, it’s also a cautionary tale about the way the slightest details and flaws could be used against them.  The spacing between lines of the memo and the existence of a key that typed a small, raised “th” after a number were among the key points of the investigation, and even on the points where the unit was proved right, their lack of preparedness proved fatal.

Vanderbilt tells the history in a fleet fashion, and he’s assembled a first-rate cast.  Mapes’ crew includes Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Elisabeth Moss, and the (weaselly, naturally) CBS executives are represented by Bruce Greenwood and David Lyons, among others.  Redford doesn’t look anything like Rather, but he convincingly adopts the cadences of the anchorman’s speech, and his own star quality melds with Rather’s, so that it’s instantly believable that other figures would show him deference.  Truth‘s own anchor, though, is Blanchett, who contributes another dynamite performance to her roster, tough and professional and also deeply vulnerable.  (Another indication that Vanderbilt’s script had a shortage of external review is the rather thudding insistence on a connection between Mapes’ horrific relationship with her father–the only major backstory any character has–with her liberal principles and journalism career, and her surrogate father-daughter bond with Rather.)  The word is that Blanchett is brilliant in Todd Haynes’ Carol, which has been screened at Cannes and Telluride, but it’s hard to believe she’s much better than she is here.

This kind of account of political conflict and principles feels like it’s owned by Aaron Sorkin these days (a season of The Newsroom revolved around an internal investigation of a flawed broadcast that had similarities to this one), and Vanderbilt doesn’t try to compete with the verbal pyrotechnics of the master.  Instead, he tells his story in a professional manner, using his first-rate cast and his own skills to illuminate the issues and the right and wrong decisions that led to a bitter result.  Truth is a film its journalist subjects could be proud of.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."