It’s an inherently dramatic narrative: big rise, big stakes, big fall. But director James Vanderbilt’s screenplay is stupifyingly pedestrian — a movie about smart people that thinks its audience is dumb. The humans who populate it are neither real people nor characters; they’re mouthpieces, spending two hours articulating intentions, backgrounds, and themes. It’s a film where a junior investigator asks Rather, apropos of nothing, “Hey, I never got to ask you: Why did you get into journalism?” — and when the newsman returns the question, the answer is, “You,” and the music swells.
Mapes can’t just have a homey scene with her kid — he has to be interviewing her with his little video camera, so he can IRONICALLY insist, “I’m trying to get to the truth, Mommy.” Rather has to call Mapes at their lowest point and give her a Wikipedia-esque rundown of how the news became profitable (“It was a public trust once, I swear to you it was”), all of which she would’ve learned in her first year at journalism school. And when two members of her team — Elisabeth Moss, wasted in an embarrassing nothing of a role, and Dennis Quaid, a serviceman introduced (no exaggeration) with a cutaway in uniform, sternly saluting at a military funeral — discuss Mary’s father issues, they can’t let us draw the line to her relationship with Rather, or even leave it at the shot of them sleeping next to each other on a plane. Nope, they have to go ahead and state it in dialogue: “They need each other. Fathers need daughters.” And audiences need talking down to, apparently.
But the whole movie’s like that: lifeless, airless, rote, dumb. A network muckety-muck demands, of the “superscript controversy,” “Find me another ‘th’ in the record!”; ten seconds later, as boxes are rolled in, Quaid announces, “We need to find another ‘th,’” as though we all just stumbled back from the bathroom. Topher Grace, as the resident rabble-rouser on the team, gives a Big Speech about how and why the network is running from the story — but it comes out of nowhere, and is delivered to basically no one, dramatically inert and laughably on-the-nose. When Mapes is brought in for questioning by an internal review board, her attorney warns her, “don’t fight,” roughly 17 times, just in case we don’t pick up the first 16 times that she’ll end up fighting at the last minute.
It’s not all a wash; Redford puts across the gravitas of Rather, if not his complexity, and Blanchett has moments where she’s credible, even when the words coming out of her mouth aren’t. There are good scenes here and there, particularly after the shit hits the fan (a tense scene of Rather interviewing their source as a network bigwig is literally writing his questions is a highlight; Mapes pleading with her father to stop talking to the media taps into some genuine emotion), and a juicy visual or two (Mapes pouring a big glass of wine as Bush thanks the White House Press Corps after his re-election).
But the film is ultimately sunk by its simplemindedness — not just in the way it presents the story to its audience, but in the way Vanderbilt seems to distill and reduce the story himself. Part of what made “Rathergate” so compelling was its complexities. There was certainly a story there, but the team’s rush to make an arbitrarily chosen airdate made them sloppy, continuing to investigate the story long after it had aired, putting out fires and playing defense rather than pursuing legitimate concerns raised during the collapsed investigation. Vanderbilt’s script (adapted, tellingly, from Mapes’ memoir) mostly acknowledges those errors, but asks us to ignore them in order to pivot the picture into an us-vs.-them configuration for the third act.
And that’s where Truth will suffer most in comparison to Spotlight, where the team investigating sexual abuse in the Catholic Church for the Boston Globe discovers their own paper could’ve broken the story earlier, had tips and warnings been pursued and heeded. In that film, journalists discover they were part of the problem they were investigating. Such nuance is far from the grasp of a feeble-minded picture like Truth, which jettisons the legitimate questions at this scandal’s center for slow-motion montages of people getting fired and The Legendary Dan Rather getting a standing ovation after his final sign-off. It’s a nice visual that doesn’t fit the story one bit, and is thus an appropriate closing image for a film as shallow and superficial as this one.
Truth is out Friday in limited release.