The most effective scene in James Vanderbilt's brisk, outraged Truth is one that will be familiar to anyone who has ever sat in a room where editors and reporters are breaking down an investigative story. The reporters — here, 60 Minutes researchers played by Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss and Topher Grace — lay out what they know and what they suspect. In this case: that a young George W. Bush pulled son-of-privilege strings to duck Vietnam for National Guard pilot training he wasn't an ideal candidate for, and that even then the president-to-be didn't much bother with showing up, at one point knocking off for months to join a political campaign. One of the eager researchers sells the story's nut with awed exuberance: The president of the United States went AWOL.
Getting everyone to prove what they know? That's the wearying job of the editor, in this case Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), the 60 Minutes producer and noted Dan Rather-wrangler. As often happens, this meeting sinks into conspiratorial logic touched with Rumsfeldian thinking: The absence of evidence backing up this story only convinces them more — now they have a story and a cover-up. "They're the military," scoffs Quaid's barely sketched-in jarhead character after someone suggests that paperwork in Bush's 35-year-old file might simply have been lost. "They're good at shit!"
The scene is tense and exciting, well observed and nerve-racking, full of the pleasures of watching a team learn to work together and attack problems, the dread of knowing how they will fail, and the what-if momentousness of how history might have worked out differently. They're meeting in 2004, in the months before the re-election of that erstwhile fighter pilot. The question isn't just "Could they have upended the election?" It's also "Are they trying to upend the election?" And: "Is that something journalists should be doing?"
That last question is a yes, of course, and Truth deserves credit for knowing it — for not pretending its job is to honor what our establishment press wheezily calls "both sides." But the facts must be proven. Vanderbilt cuts, on occasion, to the "Swiftboat" ads that Bush supporters ran attacking the military service of John Kerry, ads whose creators honored none of the rules of evidence that Mapes's team believed they were holding to but eventually got wrong — and in making that mistake brought on the downfall of Rather himself. The answers to the other two Truth leaves you to sort out for yourself. But since it's based on Mapes's memoir, the film plays as defiant tragedy, the story of a good reporter who possibly made a mistake but should never have been discredited.
The team knows what it needs to get to prove the things it believes it knows, and Vanderbilt soon gives us a spirited shoe-leather montage of Moss reading the names of potential sources off a dry-erase board, and of reporters making phone calls and getting what sounds like a series of coordinated run-arounds. This unflashy film's most recurrent image is a black landline on a black counter ringing someplace in Texas, always to be answered by the slow clunk and whirr of an answering machine. Mapes and her team find themselves facing the terrible dilemma journalists face every day: the elusiveness of corroboration.
Vanderbilt is strong at scenes of process and pressure. The network trusts Mapes, but it wants the story sooner than later — not because it's out to pillory Bush, but because 60 Minutes will be pre-empted two weeks early in the fall, and the brass doesn't want to look like part of an "October Surprise."
The investigation at last uncovers what appears to be a batch of Holy Grail documents in which the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian criticized Bush's attendance and performance, going so far as to ground the young buck. Even more irresistible for Mapes's team: a memo, titled "CYA," in which Killian recounts being pressured by his higher-ups to inflate Bush's marks.
The highest drama in Truth comes midway through: We witness, in quick but painful detail, the small mistakes and somewhat understandable bad calls that led CBS to air these memos as authentic, despite the failure of Mapes's teams to persuasively establish their provenance. Vanderbilt, the screenwriter of Zodiac, here making his debut as a director, masters the heady pulse of high-end, high-stakes journalism. The film zips by, right up until Mapes's piece finally airs, anchored by Rather on 60 Minutes II, and everything sinks beneath bathetic orchestral mush (daubed with Enya-like vocalizing) as we see the faces of the nation watching the report at home.
Blanchett plays Mapes as proud, keyed up and somewhat jangled — in the opening scene, she still seems to be embodying Woody Allen's blue Jasmine. She's best in scenes where she's working toward some solution, or commiserating with Robert Redford's Rather, the only character or actor here beside whom she doesn't read as a bit too movie-star. Glimpses of Mapes at home, with her son and husband, don't have the same lived-in quality of the rest of the film, and the script's stabs at a psychological backstory are reductive embarrassments, both in writing and performance. Vanderbilt links abuse Mapes suffered at the hands of her father to her need, in her professional life, to get at the truth — as the movie puts it, her father beat her for her curiosity, which Blanchett has to echo as the Bush story falls apart, crying out at CBS, "They do not get to smack us just for asking the fucking question!" Redford, meanwhile, gently lampoons Rather's cornball weightiness, getting the anchor's on-air cadence precisely right. But, off-air, this Rather evinces little of the salty toughness or smarts that would have gotten him to his position, or that Mapes characterizes in her book.
The collapse of Mapes's reporting is slow and painful. First conservative bloggers and then the other networks assail the key documents as probable forgeries. Mapes, CBS and Rather dig in, mustering evidence enough to keep the truth muddy: The docs still can't be proved conclusively either way, real or fake. Truth despairs that in this scrum the facts that are provable about Bush's service and Mapes's integrity hardly matter. There's much speechifying: Grace gets a Network-style humdinger about unchecked corporate power; Quaid muses over beers about how most reporters now only report on what other reporters have said; Redford's Rather starts a phone call to Mapes with a disquisition on the history of profit in network news. (That's in lieu of a "hello.") Vanderbilt gives the best to Blanchett, who mounts a seething defense of the documents' authenticity before a closed-door committee investigating the case.
In the story it's to no avail. Eventually, of course, she is fired, and Rather is forced into retirement — and Bush is re-elected. The final moments suggest that it was Bush's team who pushed for Rather's ouster, and that at the very least the content of the memos was in the ballpark of truth. But the movie, which has been well vetted by legal teams and was not slapped together in a rush, never presents as unimpeachable truth what it hasn't nailed down.