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Non-Review Review: Truth

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Truth is a truly repugnant piece of work.

It is quite plain to see what Truth aspires towards. It wants to be a prestige picture about the erosion of journalistic freedom in twenty-first century America; it positions itself alongside films like Spotlight and All the President’s Men (and even television series like the fifth season of The Wire) in contending that a free press is an essential organ of a functioning democracy. It is entirely correct in this respect. Truth is bookended by reminders of how the press exposed scandals like Abu Ghraib and held those in authority to account.

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However, Truth is spectacularly ill-judged. The film clearly wants to tell a story about journalists who find themselves under intense scrutiny for reporting something that those in power would not want exposed. There are very candid stories to be told about the failure of the American press in this role during the early years of the twenty-first century; the role of the media in the march towards the Iraq war, the death of newspaper journalism and the rise of messier (and uglier) system in its place.

Unfortunately, Truth chooses the worst possible story upon which to make this stand. What clearly aspires to be a drama about journalistic integrity becomes a tone-deaf testament to journalistic incompetence. Then again, perhaps Truth picked its subject matter perfectly.

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Truth focuses on the production of a 60 Minutes story claiming that President George W. Bush did not fulfill his obligations to the National Guard during the Vietnam War. It was a hugely embarrassing story that ran during the heated 2004 presidential election, the counterpoint to the infamous swiftboat smear campaign against President John Kerry. Truth follows that investigation from its genesis through to the spectacular fallout that occurs after its broadcast. The story in question led to the resignation of Dan Rather and gutted the 60 Minutes team.

Truth very clearly has an angle on this. Writer and director James Vanderbilt is completely transparent in his arguments. According to Truth, anchor Dan Rather and Mary Mapes were railroaded by their parent company, sacrificed at the altar of those wielding authority. (Tellingly, Truth unfolds entirely at CBS which is owned by Viacom, but is distributed by Warner Brothers.) It is a very interesting argument, one that likely contains more than a grain of truth. After all, there are discussion to be had about the role and workings of television news.

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However, Truth picks the worst possible subject for a story like this. There is every possibility that Mapes may been correct in her arguments about George W. Bush’s national service, but the evidence used to support her claim all but collapsed under scrutiny. For all that traditional media holds itself up as a bastion of reporting standards, the cornerstone of the argument was picked apart by a bunch of bloggers over a weekend. As the thread was pulled, the argument collapsed in on itself.

In many ways, Truth is a frightening expose about the tenuousness upon which news media must rest. Truth paints a very damning picture of the team who put together the piece in question. The broadcast of the episode was brought forward, putting the production team under a much tighter deadline. Mapes brushed past all the warning signs on the way to broadcast; ignoring experts who refused to authentic the documents without access to the originals, who glossed over concerns about the materials as they pursued a story.

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The problem with Truth is that the film refuses to acknowledge that Mapes made a mistake and an error in judgement. Indeed, the film rushes to blame everybody but Mapes for the disaster; the script seems to imply that Mapes had to sacrifice material backing up her argument in order to fit into the forty-odd minutes allotted to her broadcast, that she had to rush her investigation to make room for broadcasts of Jerry Falwell and Doctor Phil. When her bosses clamour to insulate themselves from the fallout, they are portrayed as inhuman monsters.

Truth ladles on the self-righteousness. When the team find themselves facing legitimate criticisms for not properly sourcing and authenticating the cornerstone of a potentially dynamite story, the film champions their refusal to acknowledge the possibility of error. “You’re supposed to ask questions!” Mike Smith yells at his boss after he is told to leave the premises. “It’s your job!” The film never bothers to point out that if Smith had bothered to ask questions about the source of his evidence, the entire news department would not find itself at risk.

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Truth tries to paint itself as a story of journalistic integrity. At one point, Rather makes fair (if heavy-handed) comments about how television journalism has become commodified and politicised, and how reporting is no longer considered to be a public service. These are all fair and legitimate observations that have been made countless times. The biggest problem with Truth is that the film mistakes integrity for incompetence, adopting the position that Mapes’ argument was likely true, so what does it matter it’s not officially substantiated?

The answer, of course, is that it makes all the difference. Truth is a story about freedom of the press, but one that glosses over the responsibilities that come with that freedom. At the climax, Mapes argues that it would take a massive right-wing conspiracy theory to pull off a hoax on this scale, suggesting that criticisms of her report are grounded in illogical starting points. The problem is that her report itself reads like a massive left-wing conspiracy; there are burnt documents and strange men, and a cover-up only marginally less plausible than the possibility the report was fake.

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Truth is incredibly disingenuous. At one point, it is suggested that Mapes and Rather were essentially thrown under the bus because Rather refused to call his source a liar. Bill Burkett is presented as a poor old man struggling with a breathing complaint, who seems at risk of having a massive heart attack during his interview. Truth expects us to sympathise with Rather’s refusal to call out Burkett, which is slightly troublesome because Burkett was a liar. He lied to Mapes about where he found the documents.

To be fair, Mapes should have questioned him about this earlier; as the person who actually ran the report, the buck stops with her. Attempting to throw Burkett under the bus would be an incredibly cynical plow, but refusing to throw Burkett under the bus does not redeem the spectacular failure of judgment that led Mapes to run a massive earth-shaking story based on nothing more than the highly questionable (and subsequently falsified) story that comes from a single unsubstantiated source. Truth paints this small moment of decency as an example of heroism.

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There is a reason that journalists have to prove what they write; there is a reason that concepts like libel and slander exist. Proving an argument is hard, even if there are unsubstantiated sources backing that argument up. In some ways, Truth plays as a counterpoint to Spotlight, an example of why that meticulous care and attention is necessary. The freedom of the press is a fantastic and worthy concept, but is not – and never has been – absolute. Truth tries to have its cake and eat it, happily blaming everybody except Mapes and Rather for the disaster that unfolded.

Truth bookends its story by making reference to the story that Mapes and Rather ran about the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. That was a wonderful example of the power of the press to expose corruption and hold authority to account. However, Truth suggests something of a false equivalence; it seems to suggest that because Mapes brought those crimes to light, she gets a free pass to make unsubstantiated accusations. That is not how freedom of the press works; that is not how freedom of the press should work. But Truth can’t grasp that.

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Even outside of the clumsy politics driving the story, the writing is terrible. At one point, two supporting characters (Lucy Scott and Colonel Roger Charles) have an extended conversation about the two primary characters. This is more than just clumsy exposition about Mapes’ personal back story (involving an abusive father), quickly degenerating into arm chair philosophy about how Mapes could be reduced to a singular influence and how her relationship with Dan Rather reflects that childhood trauma.

The script even loses track of its characters, particularly towards the climax. Despite the fact that Truth is positioned as the story of Mary Mapes, with Dan Rather as a tangential supporting figure drawn into the web, the script seems offers its biggest moment to Dan Rather’s farewell broadcast. It is a moment that seems strange, given how much time Rather spent on the periphery of the story. It is another example of Truth knowing what it wants, without knowing how best to actually get it.

 

Truth is didactic and blunt, clumsy and ill-judged. It aspires toward relevance and power, but it misfires spectacularly. Then again; that almost seems appropriate.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 1

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2 Responses

  1. Maybe it’s too soon. But Hollywood seems to have a problem addressing the Bush years, or really, any abstract subject which is linked with modern warfare, with a critical eye. What’s next? “Judith Miller: An Underdog Story”.

    • It’s really strange, because you’d think a lot of these projects (frequently linked by Redford) would be slam-dunks. If you want to indict Bush-era government policy, it’s really not that hard in theory. But they always seem to pick the worst arguments or the clumsiest phrasing.

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