Truth – Truth and bias and the old journalism. (Film Review)

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It is no casual thing that James Vanderbilt’s Truth casts Robert Redford as Dan Rather in its depiction of the death of the values associated with journalistic integrity. Bob Woodward himself playing the man that “was there when the news became profitable” is the ultimate symbol of the death of investigative journalism. Robert Redford played the journalist that brought down a president and subsequently the journalist fired for failing to give compelling enough evidence to bring down a president in a symbolic depiction of the crucifixion of The Story in favour of The Sound Bite or The Tabloid. But Vanderbilt is no dummy and he has a talent for broad perspective, so a statement that obvious deserves a considered thought process. The central question of Truth then becomes, have we lost something important without realising it, or did we venerate something undeserving that has since been exposed as false?

Beyond the question of Mary Mapes’ journalistic prowess and beyond the issue of distraction by minutia is the far more interesting issue raised by Truth of journalistic bias. Almost universally the liberal media comes under fire from the political right for bias, and it is by far the most interesting question raised by James Vanderbilt’s film. Yes Mary Mapes and Dan Rather, hot on the heels of the Abu Ghraib revelations of torture of inmates by the US military, fail to properly provide irrefutable proof that President George Bush was AWOL during his military service, and yes because they allowed a small detail to be overlooked their entire point was sidelined, but it is Vanderbilt’s overall message that, remains semi-ambiguous and yet compelling, a narrative strategy he adopted when writing 2007’s Zodiac. Problematically for Vanderbilt, Truth is a version of a story almost everyone over twenty has an opinion about, and therefore his retelling from Mapes’ perspective comes across as pandering to her point of view. Cheesy montages of people staring starry-eyed up into their televisions to hear the story around which the narrative pivots, imply Vanderbilt has his own starry-eyed perspective blindly following Mapes’ version of events.

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Despite this perspective, however, a dwindling sense that there is something wrong with Mapes and Rather’s journalistic style manages to seep into the overarching narrative flow.  When Mapes is before the committee, despite there being no findings of bias, the audience is left with no doubt that Mapes and Rather were biased. This sense is implied by certain omissions, such as the absence of self-examination when the journalists put the story together, and an unfortunate supplying of information to the Kerry office during the election campaign. Bias is brought to the fore as an accusation by the stacked Republican committee who use it as a weapon of attack, rather than pre-existing as one of the foundation stones of journalistic integrity Mapes and Rather supposedly live by. Vanderbuilt never openly accuses Mapes of anything. He sides with her, allowing the speeches about the end of honest journalism between herself and Rather to present a journalistic style that didn’t die the death of a thousand cuts by font, but died of an adherence to an old guard that had outgrown its use. Mapes, riding high on the success of her Abu Ghraib expose loses her touch on reality such that her cry to be allowed to ask questions and seek out the truth was an exclusive right of hers and not one extended to her enemies. Mapes’ problem was not a cries of journalistic integrity and shoddy workmanship. It was forgetting why she was there and who she served. With all the speeches and declarations of integrity and anti-capitalist messages at the end, it is the sense that Mapes and Rather had lost their way that mires the sentimentality in a harsh judgement. One leaves the cinema equally wondering where we can find the truth now, and shocked that we ever thought we had it in the first place.

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James Vanderbilt leads his audience to this conclusion by positing fine performances against showboat speeches about the ideals of journalism that are so carefully crafted in their lofty pandering, that they come across as statesmanlike political speech making rather than intuitive statements of belief. In the hands of lesser actors we’d loose the nuance that separates speech from speechmaking. Cate Blanchette is so good as Mary Mapes, we watch in sickening horror as she builds her story and the trap that will eventually make her fodder for Republican anti-liberal grandstanding. Blanchette’s performance gives weight to the Republican complaints, even as we wish, in the fairy land where only good things happen, that she will win out in the end just for being “right”. But even as he wants it also, Vanderbilts script coupled with his direction reveals her arrogance and the ridiculousness of the notion that she was ever able to live up to the ideals she espoused. Blanchette’s character performs against Robert Redford as Dan Rather, whose presence reaches far beyond his performance. At the conclusion of Truth I went home and watched All The Presidents Men and found the newer film affected the way I watched the old favorite. The questions raised by Truth were solid and made me question the what I used to think was self evident in the older film.

Besides the stellar performance from Cate Blanchette (it’s worth seeing Truth for that alone) the film was shot in Australia, so there are some familiar faces such as Andrew McFarlane and Noni Hazlehurst popping up throughout. Particularly worth mentioning is Noni Hazlehurst as a woman bitterly questioning the motivations of the journalists. For Aussies who know her so well, and understand the quality of her performances, its refreshing to see her commanding attention in this film. There are plenty of reasons to see Truth, but Hazlehurst and Blanchett are probably the two best.

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