- Written by
- James Vanderbilt
- Directed by
- James Vanderbilt
- Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford and Topher Grace
Journalism is not a profession that easily lends itself to cinema. The job is tedious, frustrating and mostly sedentary – we pick up the phone (or, more often, open our e-mail) and pester anyone who will listen (or, more often, those who will not).
This fall, however, sees the opening of a remarkable new film that portrays the profession in both a realistic and thrilling light, delivering a solid ode to the field that is also a stirring reminder of just how a handful of people can make a difference in the world. That film is called Spotlight – and if director Tom McCarthy's drama is the perfect journalism movie, then James Vanderbilt's Truth is its shambolic, embarrassing first draft.
Sure, Vanderbilt's film suffers from unfortunate timing, opening just two weeks before McCarthy's Oscar bait is set to draw all the positive ink after its stellar reception at the Toronto International Film Festival.
And yes, as the film sides with the reporters behind 60 Minutes's investigation into President George W. Bush's military history, it is already getting aggressively bludgeoned by conservative media.
Yet scheduling and politics are the least of Truth's concerns. Condescending, self-righteous and sloppy, Truth is simply a bad film for which there are no excuses.
Like Spotlight (and All the President's Men, and every other crusading-journalist film it's aping), Truth is based on a real-life newsroom drama, this one playing out behind the scenes of CBS in 2004.
After hearing that Bush may have received preferential treatment during his stint with the Texas Air National Guard, producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and her Ocean's 11-style team (the ex-military guy! the wild card! the woman with virtually no dialogue!) dig in, even though the research is shaky and the sources unstable.
Sure enough, after the segment goes to air, it's revealed that a crucial document was likely forged, and the entire news department finds itself in the crosshairs of a career-ending controversy, including anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford, basically playing Robert Redford).
Vanderbilt, who makes his directorial debut here, desperately wants the film to play as an investigative thriller along the lines of his script for David Fincher's Zodiac, or that other, far better film about a 60 Minutes scandal, Michael Mann's The Insider.
Instead, it's a journalism-for-dummies hack job, in which the heroes get to utter inspirational quotes about Extremely Important Principles ("When you stop asking questions, that's when the American people lose!") while being incompetent at their jobs.
For a film allegedly concerned with, well, the truth, Vanderbilt does a lot of sidestepping, so eager is he to cast Mapes and Rather in a hagiographic light.
Yes, the Bush documents were pilloried by right-wing bloggers (easy and anonymous villains for any film), but were discredited by major news organizations, too.
Yes, the 60 Minutes team was duped by a source, but if they weren't so eager to pull together the story under a tight deadline, maybe they would have paid more attention to the inconsistencies.
Vanderbilt's solution to having his heroes fall under such a huge shadow of doubt? Introduce a few conspiracy theories to the mix, including one cringe-worthy scene of Topher Grace's character laying out a plot worthy of Oliver Stone. We're meant to sympathize, to act like good little junior journos ourselves, and ask, hey, what if he's right? But all I wanted to do was crawl under my seat to the sticky floor below, lest anyone think that was how reporters regularly behave.
Worst of all, though, is how the film wastes its on-screen talent. Blanchett, usually amazing despite any ridiculousness sent her way, falls apart as Mapes. I'm sure the real journalist is a complicated and interesting professional with layers of depth and reporting prowess. Truth reduces her to a workaholic who just loves her job, dammit, so quit asking if she can just relax!
Oh, and she maybe probably definitely is seeking constant approval from her office father figure, Rather.
(Speaking of whom: It's almost admirable in its insanity how little Redford tries to adopt Rather's persona. Vanderbilt seems happy to just have the once-upon-a-time Bob Woodward stroll on screen as a distinguished older gentleman, say a few words of comfort, and then head for the exits.)
Truth is not just in need of a rewrite – it should have been spiked from the start.