A new Hollywood film has the potential to dramatically rewrite the public’s memory of one of the most infamous political scandals in news history.
“Truth,” currently showing in a handful of theaters and going wide next week, chronicles the Rathergate scandal of the 2004 presidential election, when CBS’s “60 Minutes II” ran a story claiming leaked military documents showed President George W. Bush went AWOL during his time with the Air National Guard, but went unpunished thanks to political pressure.
After the story ran, the documents were heavily scrutinized by critics who said they were obvious forgeries made using Microsoft Word rather than a 1970s typewriter (a criticism that is almost certainly true). Further doubts emerged when it was discovered that CBS’s source for the documents was Bill Burkett, a longtime Bush critic who repeatedly lied about how he obtained them. He eventually provided a bizarre explanation saying he’d been given the documents at a livestock show by a mysterious “Lucy Ramirez.” Nobody could verify her existence.
Unable to prove the documents’ authenticity, CBS retracted the story and convened a review panel whose report led to the firing of show producer Mary Mapes and several other staff members. Rather, the longtime host of “CBS Evening News” who had narrated the “60 Minutes” story, departed CBS the following year, and later filed an unsuccessful lawsuit claiming he had been forced out as a political scapegoat.
But Mapes didn’t go quietly into the night. In 2005, she released the book “Truth And Duty,” where she defended her role in producing the story and expressed her continued belief the documents are genuine. Now, she may get the last laugh, as the new film is based on her memoir and has Cate Blanchett playing her as a very sympathetic main character.
The potential for “Truth” to distort is all the higher because the film is otherwise well-made. The actors put in strong performances and director James Vanderbilt’s screenplay is generally sound despite sometimes becoming preachy.
In the film, Mapes and her staff are a team of straight-shooting crusaders who wants to speak truth to power, while Rather (played by Robert Redford) is an almost saintly presence whose only fault is being too nice. The film doesn’t ignore their many mistakes, but it certainly mitigates them.
Mapes and her crew failed to properly authenticate the documents? Well, they were under intense pressure to get the story to air in less than a week. The documents’ formatting was identical to the defaults of Microsoft Word? Sure, but it’d at least be possible through a set of incredibly unlikely coincidences to make the same documents on a 1970s typewriter. Mapes contacted the John Kerry campaign on Burkett’s behalf while crafting the story, in what was likely a major breach of journalistic ethics? Um, whoops!
Mapes’ opponents in the film are a mix of squishes at CBS who can’t take the heat of criticism and faceless Republicans out to destroy her regardless of whether her reporting is accurate.
About halfway through the film, we learn Mapes was beaten by her alcoholic father, a situation made worse by Mapes’ outspokenness.
“She would get beat up for asking questions?” one character asks, in case the audience didn’t quite get it. Just in case, this analogy is beaten into the viewer for the rest of the movie.
“They do not get to do this! They do not get to smack us just for asking the fucking question!” Mapes cries as the complaints pile up against her story. A few minutes later, as harrowing music plays, the camera dwells at length on the bullying Mapes receives from anonymous Internet commentators who call her a “feminazi” and say radio and television host Sean Hannity should “gut this witch.”
“No matter what I say, no matter what I do, I get hit!” Mapes cries against this deluge of hate, just to make sure the audience hasn’t forgotten the domestic violence analogy since it was last expressed three minutes ago. Don’t you get it? The Bush administration and CBS are just like Mapes’ horrid father!
But it all rings a bit hollow. Mapes and the rest of her staff weren’t attacked “for asking questions.” They were attacked because they presented certain documents as proof behind allegations that Bush went AWOL, and those documents were in fact almost certainly bogus. The absurdity of the documents is incredible in hindsight, and is made clear by the damning Thornburgh-Baccardi report released in 2005, which the film represents as a Republican hit-job.
The film also strongly implies Mapes and Rather were targeted for business reasons, with one character going on a minute-long tirade about how Viacom, CBS’s parent company, needed to please the Bush administration in order for the administration to continue blocking certain hostile regulations.
But this doesn’t even hold up within the film’s logic, let alone real life. If Viacom and CBS were so in bed with the Bush administration, why did they allow the memo story to run in the first place? Not only that, but why did they allow Mapes to run the Abu Ghraib torture story a few months earlier when that scandal was arguably even more damaging (and actually true)?
The film is the directorial debut of Vanderbilt, who previously wrote the screenplay for “Zodiac,” another film about a real-life investigation where the truth is uncertain. Despite his central role in making the film, Vanderbilt tries to take a hands-off approach about the movie’s accuracy, emphasizing that it’s a character drama rather than a documentary.
“No matter what, you’re always telling the story through the eyes of the protagonist,” Vanderbilt told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview. “I think for the characters we are following through this film, I do definitely feel this is an accurate portrayal of how they experienced this, factually and emotionally.”
That may be true. Vanderbilt may have really tried to make a fair film (he says he’s undecided on the Bush memos’ authenticity), and Mapes and Rather may genuinely be so delusional that they can’t accept they were fooled. But that doesn’t mean the rest of America should be fooled in the same way.