Rathergate Drama Truth Is a Propaganda Movie That Doesn’t Fully Convince

Photo: Sony Picture Classics

History might be written by the winners, but nowadays the losers have a good shot at getting their versions out if they can entice the likes of Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford into embodying them onscreen. In Truth, Blanchett plays the former CBS News producer Mary Mapes, and Redford the anchorman — and, according to the film, Mapes’s surrogate father — Dan Rather. Based on Mapes’s memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, the movie is a righteously one-sided, unsubtle, and fairly effective account of “Rathergate,” the 2004 scandal that brought Mapes and Rather down: the discrediting of a letter that was supposed to prove that the young George W. Bush had not shown up for a good part of his Air National Guard service — itself the result of “Poppy” Bush using his influence to keep his son out of Vietnam.

Did Mapes have any business building a story on a document that couldn’t be 100 percent authenticated? By the memoir and the movie’s lights, that kind of vetting was impossible. She and her team were up against a gang of Bush loyalists who had possibly scrubbed files and pressured witnesses into staying quiet, which meant that the little they found would have to be enough. At the start of the film, Mapes and Rather are on a high after their bombshell story (taking off from Seymour Hersh’s reporting) on the torture at Abu Ghraib. Then Mapes discovers that the elderly, fearful Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) has a photocopy of a letter purportedly written in 1972 or ’73 from Bush’s then-commander Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian (who’d died in 1984) complaining that Bush had skipped both a physical and Guard duties to work on an Alabama Republican Senate campaign.

It’s easy to understand what made Mapes and her team (including Rather, although he came late to the party) salivate. This was a president who had recently struck a John Wayne posture and dared Iraqi insurgents to “Bring it on!” at a time when most U.S. soldiers had inadequate body and tank armor. The idea that Bush had dodged Vietnam, gone AWOL, and was never punished was a legitimate story, especially given that both his opponents for the presidency, Al Gore and John Kerry (whom Republican operatives were busy “swift-boating”), had served on the front lines. But that’s where things get murky.

Truth depicts Mapes and her colleagues — Dennis Quaid as CBS analyst Lieutenant Colonel Roger Charles, Topher Grace as muckraking firecracker Mike Smith, and Elisabeth Moss as ex-grade-school teacher Lucy Scott — combing files; collaborating with document analysts and handwriting experts; and calling up scores of potential witnesses, most of whom angrily slam down the phone. Rather tells them they’re not there yet, and so they keep digging — until Mapes finally manages to get hold of Killian’s evasive commander, General Bobby Hodges, who admits on the phone that the letter accurately reflects Killian’s feelings at the time. Bingo! The story is frantically edited (with painful cuts) and televised with fanfare on 60 Minutes. Backslapping, hugs, drinks all around, and then: Uh, Mary — quick question. Online they’re saying ...

The most engrossing part of Truth is the gradual, grueling retreat from the story, first by its participants and then by the network that broadcast it. Did the spacing and superscript (the little “th” at the top of “10th”) prove the letter was written on Microsoft Word? Who gave the documents to Burkett, anyway? (Initially resolute, he’s suddenly vague, forgetful, possibly dissembling.) Why does Hodges now insist that he was misquoted and that the letter is a fake? Why does CBS News president Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood) convene a panel to investigate the story that consists almost entirely of partisan Republicans?

Out of all that murkiness, Truth maintains one sterling certainty: that Mapes and Rather were journalistic martyrs. “We seek the truth, that’s what we do,” says Rather. “You stop asking questions, that’s when people lose.” The implication is that we’re losing big now that network journalism is in the hands of people who no longer view it as a “public trust.”

CBS has strongly contended that Truth is anything but, and my hunch is that the film’s presentation of Mapes and Rather as beleaguered underdogs fighting against craven suits is a trifle skewed. Rather at the time could get anything and everything he wanted, and his threat to give the documents to newspapers if the story didn’t air at once is dramatized as a mark of high principle instead of high dudgeon possibly influenced by his altercation with “Poppy” Bush a decade earlier. (Never one to forego playing dirty, Bush had deflected a serious question by bringing up a trivial Rather hissy fit.) Mapes contends in her book and Mike Smith in a rant onscreen that the media conglomerate Viacom (which then owned CBS) threw them under a bus because billions were at stake in Washington, where Viacom vigorously lobbied for favorable action on “media ownership rules, debt structure, a variety of cable issues, and leniency in television (particularly cable) decency standards.” CBS saw and still sees itself as having been bullied by its highest-paid newsman and his aggressive cohorts into airing a poorly sourced story.

Needless to say, I wasn’t around — and here I must divulge that, as a commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning, I’ve heard both sides. (Will I be reviewing Truth on the show this Sunday? Uh, no.) But the movie feels like propaganda. Rather is depicted one-dimensionally as calm and sagacious, and Mapes as, well, Cate Blanchett, who is graceful no matter what she says and does. “I don’t like bullies,” she tells a colleague early on, finding just the right combination of anger and sadness. (Mapes’s father is seen — briefly — as an unhinged right-winger and saboteur.) Disobeying her lawyer’s advice and forcefully declaring her principles to the likes of Rove crony Dick Thornburgh and Lawrence Lanpher (played by Dermot Mulroney as a sneering Republican hack), her Mapes is an ethical paragon and a marvel of self-possession. 

On its own terms, Truth works fine. Director and screenwriter James Vanderbilt provides no finesse but keeps the movie humming, and though Moss is notably wasted, Quaid’s mixture of easy charm and seriousness anchors every scene. Speaking of anchors, Redford is wonderful and subtly funny even if he’s playing a saint. Normally not known for his impersonations, Redford nails the authoritative rhythms of Rather’s speech, the gravitas, and Rather’s sense of himself as embodying the noblest ideals of the world’s noblest profession. He has his own truth.

At the end of the day (or at least the film), I think it’s likely that Bush’s career in the Guard was a joke and that Killian’s indignation at his special treatment was genuine. (Although bloggers and rival networks gleefully tore the story to shreds, the White House never actually denied it.) But having a feeling and having proof are different things, which is journalism’s most salient truth. The bad guys might have cheated like hell along the way, but even after seeing Truth, I think a good case can be made that they won this battle fairly.