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James Vanderbilt’s docudrama provides a myopic look at a 60 Minutes news report that went wrong

James Vanderbilt’s docudrama Truth recounts what went wrong with a 2004 60 Minutes news story about George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war. It seemed like a hot story in the ongoing presidential campaign, but it ultimately left a black mark on Black Rock and sent a number of CBS News heads rolling, including Dan Rather’s.

click to enlarge Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes
Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes

Most of the blame fell on Rather’s longtime producer Mary Mapes, portrayed here with charismatic vigor by Cate Blanchett. Truth is adapted from Mapes’ 2005 book Truth and Duty, which might be why this film feels like a self-justifying polemic — journalists to the barricades! Vanderbilt stops the narrative three times so that characters can deliver outraged speeches about Integrity in Media, A Conspiracy of Corporations and How News Used to Matter. 

But the Bush story falls apart on more prosaic grounds — shaky sources, questionable documents and a competitive atmosphere that can breed myopia. Rather (Robert Redford) is cast as the elder statesman, a newsman so dedicated to the profession that he leaves a party in his honor to help Mapes break a story. (In fairness, it was a good one — the Abu Ghraib mess — but Truth doesn’t quite draw the link that the intoxicating buzz from that might have spurred Mapes and her team on to nail another big one.)

There’s plenty of meaty and topical material here — the rush to scoop, facts to be sorted out later, is worse than ever — but Vanderbilt stays pat with his good guys (Mapes’ team) versus bad guys (everybody else) storyline. Journalists are warned about confirmation bias — deciding on story’s outcome and then marshalling content to fit it, rather than letting discovered facts lead to a proven conclusion. It’s partly what undoes Mapes’ Bush story, and it definitely contributes to this film’s weakness. Despite its mistakes, the team is painted as golden martyrs to news, cruelly slain by bloggers, Karl Rove, pissy lawyers or name-your-own-villain. Starts Fri., Oct. 30.

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