Here’s what I remember about the Killian documents controversy: In the run-up to the 2004 election, CBS’ 60 Minutes II ran a news segment arguing that then-President George W. Bush was AWOL during a fair portion of his career in the National Guard. A tide of right-wing bloggers soon rose, claiming the documents 60 Minutes leaned on as evidence were forgeries. An inquiry panel was formed, the segment’s producer was fired, and Dan Rather eventually resigned.
Here’s what I didn’t know: That inquiry panel was headed by a former GOP governor and Attorney General under Bush’s father. It found no evidence of wrongdoing, and no one has demonstrated the documents are false. The producer, Mary Mapes, believes they are real to this day.
That “fog of war” effect is, to a large degree, what the new movie Truth is about. Throw enough mud at the wall, and you can create your own holographic cultural reality. No one remembers the documents were never disproven; they just remember CBS’s disgrace, and assume it must have been for good reason.
Writer and director James Vanderbilt based the film on Mapes’ memoir, and it’s really the embattled producer (played by Cate Blanchett) who’s his protagonist. We meet her while she’s wrapping up work on a 60 Minutes segment on Abu Ghraib — journalism for which she would eventually win a Peabody. She looks to Dan Rather (Robert Redford) as something of a father figure, and they form a duo of close confidants. In classic cinematic style, the rest of Mapes team is a motley collection of upstarts: Associate producer Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), who also works as a teacher; Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), a gruff but good-natured former military man; and Mike Smith (Topher Grace), a scruffy investigator.
Mapes has been gathering details on Bush’s time in the National Guard since before the 2000 election. So when a series of contacts lead her to the ailing and aging Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), who claims to have documents proving Bush was AWOL, Mapes leaps at the opportunity. The rest of the film details her efforts to put the story together, and the massive fallout afterwards.
Blanchett’s performance is the core of the film, and it’s towering work in its emotional heft. Redford is good as Rather, and Truth gently suggests the deep reserves of trust between the two coworkers (it also drops more than a few hints that Rather was a boozehound). Vanderbilt is a smart writer who keeps things moving, only rarely indulges in flashiness, and he shoots the proceedings with a confident and artistic hand. Overall, it’s a well-executed drama with a ferocious sense of purpose.
And while Truth is totally in Mapes and Rathers’ corner tonally, it’s upfront about the complexities of the story. The team put things together under a tremendous time crunch, and there was dissension among their experts as to whether the documents could be authenticated. It’s clear Mapes failed to realize the way accusations of partisan bias would be used to frame everything. And the filmmakers make an especially interesting choice when Smith gets a third act speech about the connections between CBS’ corporate parent and the Bush White House, and the moment swings from righteous indignation and ever-so-slightly into a conspiracy theory feel. That said, the inquiry panel itself is presented as straightforwardly villainous, the movie pulls a lot more drama out of nasty comments on the internet than they really warrant, and late in the game there’s a worshipful slo-mo shot of Rather that verges on the eye-rolling.
But Mapes delivers a very convincing climactic monologue on how the chances that the documents were forgeries are infinitesimally small. The team felt they’d nailed it when they got in touch with one of the old military men who oversaw Bush at the time. They read him the documents, and he confirmed their veracity. He then later recanted, and Truth strongly implies he was intimidated by the storm of right-wing fury.
This is where, as a journalist myself, things get dicey. I can’t really say Mapes and her team were wrong to run the story. But man, it’s right on the borderline. And Truth isn’t really interested in whether they made the right judgment call — it’s interested in the effort to bring Mapes and Rather down, and what that effort says about our society’s ability to ask honest questions of itself. Which is fine. I believe Mapes and Rather weren’t motivated by political animosity. But there are lots of other forms of bias: Smith hates the Man, Charles doesn’t like it when wealthy scions don’t take their military duties seriously, and Mapes — as Rather notes — is staunchly committed to fighting the world’s bullies. At the inquiry, one of the panelists asks Mapes if she thinks Bush or any of his wealthy friends could possibly have gotten into the National Guard on their own genuine merit. She pins him with the most withering and contemptuous stare imaginable, and says, “No.”
We like to talk about journalism as if it’s some sort of objective science, which is rubbish. Our moral values, what sort of stories stick in our gut, how we think human nature works, and whether we agree with Lord Akton’s old saw that power corrupts — all these things are biases, narratives we tell ourselves, and frames through which we see the world. We can never escape from them or rise above them because we literally could not interpret reality without them. So journalism will always, at its base, be a crusading art.
And personally speaking, I’m totally with Mapes on this. I think the effect power has on people, and the ease with which they can break and bully those weaker than them, are the defining forces behind the injustice in the world. It’s what drives my own work, and I found Truth moving for that exact reason. I must also admit I am an inevitable prisoner of my own subjectivity in this.