Robert Redford does not look or act much like CBS news anchor and “60 Minutes Wednesday” star Dan Rather. But that doesn’t matter much. What matters, and what’s germane to the distressing inchoate quality of “Truth, “ is that Rather comes off as a saintly cardboard dullard in writer-director James Vanderbilt’s new film. Even if you don’t know what’s missing — a hint, maybe, of the legendary Rather swagger — what’s there does not compensate.
Top-billed Cate Blanchett tears into the role of the hard-charging news producer Mary Mapes, a maligned scapegoat in the movie’s eyes. In September 2004, on the brink of George W. Bush’s re-election, Rather led the on-air charge with a Mapes-produced “60 Minutes” segment regarding discrepancies, vagaries and riddles about Bush’s Texas Air National Guard duty during the Vietnam War.
It was a hot number. But key memos cited in the report drew charges of forgery. The story wasn’t persuasively verified. Crucial documents were framed on air as authentic; they were not. After an on-air retraction and apology, Rather bowed out and Mapes was fired.
But what if the story was essentially correct and accurate, squishy evidence notwithstanding? There’s a good movie to be made from the unknown knowns of “Truth.” Blanchett’s Mapes certainly holds the screen, though the performer’s best efforts have a way of turning this version of events into a not-so-grand opera of overstatement. Blanchett is an actress, formidable and fierce, who has never, ever left an audience wanting more. But here, that doesn’t matter much. Vanderbilt’s script adapts the Mapes memoir “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.” The film feels dodgy, tentative and uncertain as to how to frame its own protagonist in a complicated story of journalistic compromise (and worse).
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There have been plenty of commentaries about how “Truth” and “Spotlight” handle the subject of conducting expensive, time-consuming investigative journalism in the flailing, economically hobbled modern media. “Truth” is a story of an incendiary rush job that didn’t hold up; the unglamorous newshounds of “Spotlight, “ examining the Catholic Church’s endless, enraging cover-up of sexual abuse perpetrated by its parish leaders, had the money and the patience to do their jobs well and, yes, make the world a safer place.
As Mapes assembles her news crew (Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss and Topher Grace, grappling with different degrees of smugness), “Truth” becomes a story of leaked memos, followed by a fatal shortcut or two, followed by an hour’s worth of screen time devoted to regrets, crises and fallout. Vanderbilt honors Mapes and all she endured on the way up (she won a Peabody for her Abu Ghraib coverage) and then down. But he dishonors the tradition of the journalism movie by falling for every cheap emotional tactic in a book that should’ve gone out of print years ago.
The actors can only do so much. Redford does as little as possible in the name of cliche reduction, but it’s a recessive characterization from beginning to end. Blanchett compensates, compellingly, and then overcompensates. At one point Mapes, her career in flames, sits next to her bottle of chardonnay at her laptop. She spies a vicious online comment (“gut the witch”). It’s a moment needing no editorial comment. But terrible music (by Brian Tyler) swells and the camera crawls in closer and closer to the screen. It’s the dawn of the age of the online troll in a single image. But why all the fakey melodrama?
The drama — the honest, telling details of this saga — would’ve been enough. As is, “Truth” doesn’t matter much. But we do have “Spotlight.”
2 1/2 stars out of 5
Cast: Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace. James Vanderbilt
Director: James Vanderbilt.
Running time: 2:05.
Rated: R, for language and a brief nude photo.