By Ron Merk
No, I didn’t make an error in the title. It was meant to be ironic, as ironic as the good faith efforts of CBS Network anchor, Dan Rather, and his friend and 60 Minutes producer, Mary Mapes whose report about “Junior” Bush’s Air National Guard non-service met with disbelief, back-room politics (read: dirty politics), and possible manipulation of witnesses and evidence sources during the re-election campaign of President George W. Bush by “persons unknown.”
The end result was the firing of Mapes (who never worked again in Broadcast journalism) by CBC New Chief Andy Heyward, and the early “stepping down” from anchor chair of The CBS Evening News by Dan Rather.
The film, based on Mapes’ memoir Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power and directed by James Vanderbilt, is drama at its best. There is never enough good drama these days, unless you want it with exploding cars, aliens, and zillions of special effects. This is drama, first and foremost, the kind that we used get in the good old days of Hollywood. It is sharp, smart and exciting.
Piece by piece, Mapes and her team of investigators, unravel a mystery about President George W. Bush and his possible failure to show up for his Texas Air National Guard duties, while others less privileged were being shipped off to Vietnam to die in a war that turned out to be the first war in which America did not prevail.
Pushed by time slot issues at CBS to get the report on the air, Mapes and Rather, according to the memoir and the film, used due diligence to gather the information for their report, to find credible witnesses, and create a solid piece of journalism. But their evidence began to unravel once the show aired. Is it possible the whole thing was a “set up” by the Bush campaign, to discredit the rumors of Bush’s failures? Conspiracy theories seem quite applicable to the way this story played out. Bush in the White House with a majority of only 500 plus votes in Florida, and both Mapes and Rather in disgrace. Was it hubris on their part? Good question.
There are certain parallels between “Truth” and “All the President’s Men.” Corruption at the highest levels, reaching all the way to the oval office at The White House. Detail after tiny detail “adding up” to a credible story. Release of the story, and then the “bomb” that it set off in the media when the “sources” reversed their opinions and some of the evidence documents are debunked by “bloggers” from the right and the other networks. But in this case, the President didn’t lose office, he got into office.
Director Vanderbilt and his very able cast, headed by the amazing Cate Blanchett and the redoubtable Robert Redford, weave an amazing story from tiny details that Mapes’ team digs up about the Bush apparent lack of attendance at the Texas Air National Guard. But the film also gives us large helpings of personal character and personal drama, especially in the case of Mapes’ character whose own abusive father denounces her in a broadcast, a move that literally tears at her soul. This is one of Blanchett’s most nuanced and powerful performances, and I was truly moved by the pain of the character she portrayed. Definitely Academy Award caliber!
The rest of the cast including Elizabeth Moss, Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid, Stacy Keach, John Benjamin Hickey, Bruce Greenwood as a chilling CBS Network Chief, and Dermot Mulroney as a real sonovabitch lawyer who deposes Mapes during an internal CBS investigation of why the “story went wrong,” all give unselfishly and remarkably of themselves as actors, providing a perfect little gems of character and clarity to the larger story being told.
These kinds of performances are only possible with the deft handling of directorial chores, and I must commend director, James Vanderbilt, for his invisible yet very concrete presence in these performances. The actors are modulated like finely tuned musical instruments in Vanderbilt’s hands. He is a truly fine director.
Attention to period detail, superb production design and costuming, inclusion of historic TV news footage, and discrete utilization of CGI (Redford standing on the balcony overlooking Park Avenue) that does not show off its own virtues but serves the story and the film in an almost invisible way. These were all choices made by artistic consideration by professionals who were really on their game. They did not happen by accident. It’s the combination of all these elements that makes the film solid, strong and enjoyable.
Truth, some say, is relative. But in the case of this film, and the story of Mapes and Rather, it’s clear that they believed they were right, had the right sources and research, and the only truth they arrived at in the end, was the loss of their dignity and reputations. This did not end in the way was as “All the President’s Men,” but if you ask anyone with knowledge of this event, I think most would agree that the story was true, and had simply been manipulated by power in high places. Of course, we all love a conspiracy. They are made of the same juicy kind of stuff as gossip. But as I watched the film, I believed Rather and Mapes, and still do. Of course, we’ll all entitled to our own opinion.