November 20 — November 26
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
Speaking of this film in Black Sheep Review, cinema critic Ramona Zacharias noted that “The Internet can be a scary place. If you’re in the public eye, it can hold your reputation in the palm of its fickle hand - one wrong journalistic move, and you face crucifixion.” That’s essentially the theme of screenwriter-turned-director James Vanderbilt’s absorbing, superbly-crafted examination of what happened to former 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes when she and her research team made some missteps that seemed minor at the time, but became focal points of a Grand Inquisition conducted by self-appointed witch hunters on the Web. The immediate result: Mapes lost her job and the sterling reputation she’d earned after breaking the story on prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib; and legendary news anchor Dan Rather resigned under a cloud that would tarnish his formidable legacy as well. The story that destroyed their careers (and those of several other executives at CBS) was the 2004 inquiry into President George W. Bush’s service with the National Guard thirty years before. Noticing some apparent discrepancies in Bush’s military record, Mapes and her team started to dig deeper. After talking to inside sources and looking at various documents, they concluded that Bush might’ve received special treatment in order to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War—and even went AWOL during part of his service. Obviously, the subject was a hot potato: 2004 was an election year and one of the strongest attributes of Bush’s Democratic opponent, John Kerry, was his service in Vietnam. But before Mapes and CBS aired their story about Bush, many conservative critics were questioning Kerry’s war record. Suddenly, the issue of what each presidential candidate actually did during the Vietnam War was critical for winning the election: both men needed the public to see them as forthright, courageous leaders who didn’t shirk their patriotic duty back in 1974. The vicious smear campaign launched against Kerry gave rise to the term “swift-boating,” but it also made 60 Minutes’ motives for pushing the Mapes story suspect. And Truth doesn’t shy away from the fact that some of the people on Mapes’s team, such as freelance journalist Mike Smith, definitely had a liberal agenda. But the deeper question, one that was frequently ignored, was: Does a person’s motives for finding the truth keep it from being the truth? The question is just as pertinent today as it was 11 years ago. Maybe more so, as we now live in an era of 24-hour news, where historic events are distilled into 140-character tweets and shared instantaneously on social media. So much information hits us from so many sources, it’s nearly impossible to gauge the validity of everything we learn. The public used to rely on trusted, venerated news outlets like 60 Minutes for stories with significance. Now we get “facts” from a hodgepodge of anonymous or ambiguous sources, not always reliable or unbiased. Truth and Duty, the memoir Mapes wrote after her career was ruined, provides the basis for this film, but director Vanderbilt isn’t just interested in a story about an All the President’s Men-type investigation that backfired tragically on the journalists. Showing the same meticulous attention to detail that he did in his screenplay for David Fincher’s Zodiac, Vanderbilt shows viewers how Mapes and her team could be so diligent and thorough in their research, yet still make crucial mistakes. The audience must decide whether or not these lapses in journalistic rigor should have discounted their entire story, especially considering how important it was during that 2004 election. And what Truth does exceedingly well is show how the Internet—and the anonymity it affords political critics and commentators—had a wide-reaching impact on how traditional news agencies operated. One wonders what would have happened if the Internet had been around when Woodward and Bernstein broke the story of the Watergate break-in: how many faceless “experts” might’ve emerged from the woodwork to cast doubt on their sources, their personal agendas, their methods of investigation? Would President Nixon have gotten away with it? The implications are sobering, and Vanderbilt’s taut direction and intelligent, articulate script shows us why the Mapes backlash was such a big deal—and still haunts us today. But a great screenplay and fascinating real-life story mean nothing without terrific actors to inhabit the important roles, and Vanderbilt’s assembled a cast that give the dramatic narrative genuine electricity. First and foremost is Cate Blanchett as Mapes, giving a multi-faceted performance as an ambitious go-getter wracked with self-doubt. Her relationship with surrogate father figure Dan Rather (played with effortless charisma by Robert Redford) is part of what drives her toward recklessness—that, plus the pressure to duplicate the success of the Abu Ghraib exposé. There are excellent supporting performances, too, from Dennis Quaid as Lt. Col. Roger Charles, a retired officer who gives Mapes inside information from the Pentagon; Topher Grace as firebrand reporter Mike Smith; Elizabeth Moss as an up-and-coming producer; and Stacy Keach as a whistleblower who seems to have a hidden agenda of his own. The entire cast not only offers vivid, memorable characterizations, but provides a sense of authenticity: Truth easily stands beside All the President’s Men in terms of getting the “feel” of a news agency exactly right. Moviegoers feel immersed in this ultra-competitive, high-octane world where vetting sources and making sure the facts check out is genuinely engrossing. We see how difficult it is to give the world an important story while making sure every piece of evidence is solid. The film doesn’t completely exonerate Mapes and company for what they got wrong, but by establishing the pressure cooker in which they operated—and the disproportionately heavy criticism they got for those mistakes—Truth shows just how hard it is to… well, learn the truth. Today’s younger generations are almost hard-wired to believe that, unless it make us laugh or supports our own political views, none of the news we learn about it real. That’s a scary prospect, but Truth explores these issues in a way that’s compelling and thought-provoking, bolstered by a magnificent central performance from Cate Blanchett.
(Rated R for profanity and brief nudity.)
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