I trust you were extra careful with every paper you handled on the set of Truth. Like, anal retentive, triple-check, hyper-cautiously-aware of your responsibilities. Sure, you were only hired as a production assistant, but first-time director James Vanderbilt obviously knows the importance of a solid paper trail after adapting Mary Mapes’ novel, so he must have hired you specifically to make sure everything was by-the-book. Otherwise, you know—the whole project/company/profession could have come crashing down.
It’s this kind of high-stakes attention to detail that sits at the heart of Vanderbilt’s film adaptation of Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, a first-hand account of the infamous CBS 60 Minutes news segment that questioned President George W. Bush’s military service record. What began as an earnest fact-finding mission about whether or not Bush was given a cushy job with the National Guard to avoid combat in Vietnam turned into a shadowy chess match between obscure sources with even more obscure motivations—one that famously cost host Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes their careers.
The 60 Minutes segment aired during the 2004 presidential election, and was journalistically justified, in part, by Republican attacks against the service record of Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry. But, with the help of a sleuth internet community, major questions arose about the authenticity of a key document being featured. The typeface, critics argued, matched those of a 2004 Word processor perfectly, and wasn’t the same as the ones found in most typewriters from 1971. More specifically, a superscript font appeared to be anachronistic. Within days, the story quickly shifted from Bush’s record to that of the news team that broke the story.
Much in the same way that the true scope of this story snuck up on the reporters, so too does the drama in Vanderbilt’s telling. The gravitas of what is happening isn’t apparent early on, nor was it for me as a university journalist student when this incident was first unfolding. After all, the media is famous for aggrandizing their own importance. And in the digital age, it has become fashionable to cheer the demise of the old establishment, even if it’s just to watch it burn. But seeing their credibility go up in smoke is a much more somber experience from the inside.
What really makes this film work, however, are the more progressive elements of the story—namely, prioritizing Mapes’ story over Rather’s (who, in the public, was the much more prominent player). Experiencing the pile-on from a female perspective adds an intangible strength to the story in which the opposition came directly from the old boys club. Cate Blanchett navigates her role with the dignity you’d expect, and even gets backing from her (non-)trope “supportive husband”. Sure, Mapes’ psychology is a bit reductive (daddy-issues, with some on-the-nose dialogue to hammer the point home), but her professional motivations and methods are less easy to pick apart.
The film is also, thankfully, workmanlike in its approach, devoid of the hyperbolic visual flare that plagued The Fifth Estate, focusing instead on the details. A lot of care went into translating what was on the page onto the screen, which is exactly what a good journalism is all about.