02 March 2016

Rarely Pure and Never Simple — Truth Review

James Vanderbilt's Truth is the best movie about superscripts that you will see all year. But although it is a good movie, it isn't the best movie this year about a team of ace reporters in the early 2000s as they try to uncover a shocking scandal — that accolade goes to Spotlight, to which Truth makes a nice companion piece.

(Elisabeth Moss, Cate Blanchett, Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid in Truth. Image credit: Warner Bros)

Truth explores the story behind the now-infamous 2004 CBS 60 Minutes report that alleged to reveal evidence of discrepancies in President George W. Bush's military service during the Vietnam War. At its centre are top producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and much-loved anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford), who assemble a first-rate investigative team to help them discover the truth. The whole story rests at first on a single memo that suggests Bush, and other sons of influential families in Texas, may have received preferential treatment in order to enlist in the National Guard and thus avoid being sent to Vietnam. If true, this is huge, but the provenance of the memo is uncertain, and so Mary and her team must try to find out the facts and gain the confirmation they need.

I say that the story is now-infamous, but I hadn't heard about it before and then inadvertently ended up finding out the whole story online before watching the film, which coloured the way I viewed the film and judged the characters. If you don't want to know what happens, look away now!

One of the reasons I tired of Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom was the insufferable self-righteousness of the characters. We are doing journalism properly and we will get our two confirmed sources and we will find the truth, the characters told us each week. The first hour or so of Truth feels a bit like like an episode of The Newsroom: the characters find what might be a great scoop, they investigate, they pull together enough verification to run the story, and it is a huge success. Mary, Dan and co celebrate together, job well done. "We're 60 Minutes; we are the gold standard," they say. But then the criticisms begin, niggles at first: bloggers who spot problems with the memo that may mean it couldn't have been written on a typewriter in the 1970s. A large part of the plot hinges around whether such typewriters had a superscript key.

Before long, though, the whole story is crumbling around Mary and Dan, as more and more problems with the reporting are identified until an internal investigation is launched. Did Mary ignore some of the warning signs in order to push her own "radical feminist agenda", for instance? Either way, she and her team made some huge oversights in their reporting, perhaps because she had so much faith in the story, that she was blind to the reasons it may prove to be false. And this is where the reporting differs from Spotlight: the Spotlight team also believe passionately in their story but large parts of the film are allocated to their painstaking, diligent work to prove that they were right. Mary, meanwhile, is rushed to air the story and she and her team make a lot of mistakes, regardless of what the whole truth may be.

Truth is as compelling as Spotlight and Blanchett is very strong as the passionate producer who is blinded by the ambition of her story — I last saw her in Carol, a very different role, which demonstrates Blanchett's fantastic range and control. It's also true that Truth is, narratively, more complicated than Spotlight, where we can root for the heroes because they are doing the right thing and they are right. We want to root for Mary in Truth — we want her to be proved right — but it isn't that simple. And I think that is what I struggle with: the film is based on Mapes' memoir and the film seems far too one-sided. It leaves little open for interpretation, as its characters speak solemn, Sorkin-esque words about their profession. "I was there the day they figured news could make money," Dan tells Mary.

The film is well structured and has a great ensemble cast, but many of the supporting cast-members are under-used, especially Elisabeth Moss, but also Dennis Quaid. Just like the 60 Minutes report, Truth is very much the Mary and Dan show. The story is fascinating and the film is engaging, but ultimately, Truth left me feeling slightly unsatisfied. The truth, I suppose, is still out there.

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