Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Truth (opens in Cleveland October 30th)

Review by Pamela Zoslov

“Journalism is an inexact science, if it can be considered a science at all,” wrote Mary Mapes, the erstwhile CBS producer. “Done best, it requires taking chances – choosing to doubt, choosing to believe, choosing to keep digging.” Mapes, along with others on her staff, was ignominiously fired after questions were raised about a “60 Minutes” segment she produced that questioned George W. Bush's military service during the Vietnam War. The story, aired during Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, was savagely attacked for relying on purportedly forged documents, and also led to the forced resignation of celebrated anchor Dan Rather.

Mapes' book, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, is the basis of the film TRUTH. Not surprisingly, the film is immensely flattering to Mapes, who is played by the glamorously angular Cate Blanchett, and to Rather, who is portrayed by Robert Redford with uncanny vocal accuracy and a twinkle in his eye. Written and directed by James Vanderbilt, it's an apologia for Mapes' integrity, portraying her as tough, determined, and the victim of a right-wing spin machine. That spin machine not only attacked but may have created the questionable “Killian documents” that were the basis of the segment, “For the Record,” which aired on September 8, 2004, two months before the presidential election.

The documents, provided by a retired National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (played by Stacy Keach), were supposedly drafted by Bush's commander, the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, and implied that George W. Bush had received preferential treatment in winning a coveted place in the Guard, and then failed to meet even the minimal training and performance requirements of his six-year commitment, even being AWOL for most of 1972 following a transfer to the Alabama Air National Guard. The candidates' military service was an explosive issue during the 2004 campaign, since Bush had sent thousands of servicemen (including unprepared National Guardsmen) to their deaths in an unnecessary war; his reelection chances would have been jeopardized if it emerged that he had dodged the draft. The Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry, which claimed Kerry had lied about his wartime heroics, were the right-wing backlash against questions about Bush's record.

What the film doesn't mention is that rumors had been circulating about Bush's military service for decades, dating back to his first campaign for public office. A question about possible favoritism was asked by a reporter in a televised debate in 1994 against Ann Richards during Bush's campaign for Texas governor. The reporter was angrily chastised by Bush's handlers, Karen Hughes and Karl Rove. Bush's political team did extensive work burying the story of Bush's spotty military record. Paperwork that would be expected to be in his military file mysteriously went missing, and it's widely believed the records were purged. (For invaluable background on this history, see Russ Baker's detailed account here

Mapes had a solid background in journalism: she received awards and acclaim for her story on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the exposé of Strom Thurmond's unacknowledged bi-racial daughter. She had first looked into Bush's military record during the 2000 presidential campaign. But it wasn't until '04 that the “big, juicy piece of brisket” — the Killian documents — fell into her lap that she was able to run with it. In the film, she's a driven workaholic who forgets to put milk on her young son's Cheerios and has no time to take a walk with her long-suffering husband (John Benjamin Hickey). Further, she's a champion of the underdog (“I don't like bullies”), an impulse that has its origin in her merciless childhood abuse by her father. (To drive home the point, dear old Dad is still around to hurt Mary, this time by siding publicly with her right-wing critics.)

Mapes and her “crack team” – associate producer Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid) and newly hired researcher Mike Smith (Topher Grace) – doggedly pursues confirmation of the story. Mapes persistently calls military sources for confirmation, getting answers ranging from a robotic “No strings were pulled [on Bush's behalf]” to “Go fuck yourself.”

Burkett, the shadowy, ailing source of the documents, is reluctant to appear on camera, claiming that after he originally made the claims in 2000, “someone tried to run me off the road.” Mapes coaxes him: “We're '60 Minutes'! We're the gold standard. We can help you. We can protect you.” The team, under pressure from the network to air the segment quickly, gets experts to analyze the documents — which are copies, not originals — and relies on an expert who pronounces the signature authentic.

The segment airs, and immediately the right-wing blogosphere – still in its squalling infancy in 2004 – begins savaging the story, and Mapes as the villainess behind it (calling her, horror of horrors, “ugly” and a “witch”). The Internet is aflame with accusations that the documents are forgeries, based in part on typographical features supposedly not available on typewriters in 1972. The network appoints an independent investigative panel – Mapes calls it “corporate positioning.” The panel is headed by Dick Thornburgh, who was Attorney General under George H.W. Bush, and looks into Mapes' liberal political leanings. Mapes' attorney advises her to cooperate with the panel – “Don't fight!” Those are fighting words to Mapes, who makes a powerful speech while under harsh cross-examination by Lawrence Lanpher (Dermot Mulroney). Still, Mary, her team, and her father figure, Dan Rather, all lose their jobs; Mary watches Rather's final farewell on TV while drinking a big glass of wine (to wash down the Xanax).

The film is James Vanderbilt's debut as a director, and he seems to have in mind a tense newsroom thriller like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. If he missed that by miles, it's in part because of timing: many viewers may only dimly remember why the issue of military service was so hot in 2004 (“It's politics, Mary,” says the movie's avuncular Dan Rather). It was important not just for partisan reasons, but because of hypocrisy — Bush the chickenhawk, having started two wars after (allegedly) dodging the draft and neglecting his duty. It seems almost quaint by comparison to the 2016 campaign, which has a racist billionaire buffoon and reality-TV star vying with a lineup of other crazies for the highest office in the land. Politics has become so cynical that citizens, numbed by a constant torrent of crass infotainment, scarcely blink.

Vanderbilt's screenplay doesn't help matters, nor does Brian Tyler's grandiose score. The writing is schematic and obvious, and labors mightily to exonerate Mapes. At the same time, I am sympathetic to Mapes, having once been nominally responsible for the publishing of a fake newspaper story, a bungle that led to my being attacked for “liberal bias” and having a TV news camera in my face, among other humiliations. The truth, as with the “60 Minutes” flap, is that deadline pressure and simple ineptitude, rather than a leftist agenda, are the usual reasons for such screw-ups. In fact, a story can be both true and inaccurate. Consider the 2012 controversy over performance artist Mike Daisey's one-man show about the abuses of overseas workers assembling Apple's iPhones  – Daisey fudged the facts, but the story of what was happening at the Foxconn factory in China was true. It's long been known that Bush avoided the draft and shirked his Guard service; the record was scrubbed, and what evidence remained could not be verified with certainty.

Mapes' career, and Rather's legacy – he recently echoed Mapes' “Journalism is not an exact science” line – fell into a black hole of disinformation. 2 3/4 out of 4 stars.

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