Robert Redford’s got some rotten timing. Two years ago, he starred — had the only speaking role, in fact — in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, a very good film about one person trying to survive certain death, which was critically and commercially overshadowed that fall by, and suffered somewhat in comparison to, Gravity, a better film about one person trying to survive certain death. This fall, Redford stars in a new film called Truth, a true story of high-minded journalists investigating a very big story, and it opens at roughly the same time as Spotlight, another true story of high-minded journalists investigating a very big story. The difference between the fall of 2013 and the fall of 2015 is that, had it debuted a few months earlier or a few months later, clear of the shadow of its thematic cousin, All Is Lost might’ve found an audience. Truth is simplistic, pedestrian swill, no matter when you release it; putting it out so close to Spotlight merely emphasizes its already overpowering flaws.
And the worst part is, it’s a compelling story: how producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and superstar anchor Dan Rather (Redford) put together a bombshell for 60 Minutes shortly before the 2004 election, alleging powerful Texans had pulled strings to get George W. Bush into the Texas Air National Guard, where he had been derelict in his duty. Or, as a character spells out in the most explicit terms imaginable — which happens a lot in this movie — “So you’re telling me that the President of the United States may have gone AWOL for an entire year?” But after the story airs, questions arise about their sources, and their documentation; minor controversies become shiny objects, effectively diverting attention from what they actually uncovered.
It’s an inherently dramatic narrative: big rise, big stakes, big fall. But director James Vanderbilt’s screenplay is stupifyingly pedestrian — a movie about smart people that thinks its audience is dumb. The humans who populate it are neither real people nor characters; they’re mouthpieces, spending two hours articulating intentions, backgrounds, and themes. It’s a film where a junior investigator asks Rather, apropos of nothing, “Hey, I never got to ask you: Why did you get into journalism?” — and when the newsman returns the question, the answer is, “You,” and the music swells.
Mapes can’t just have a homey scene with her kid — he has to be interviewing her with his little video camera, so he can IRONICALLY insist, “I’m trying to get to the truth, Mommy.” Rather has to call Mapes at their lowest point and give her a Wikipedia-esque rundown of how the news became profitable (“It was a public trust once, I swear to you it was”), all of which she would’ve learned in her first year at journalism school. And when two members of her team — Elisabeth Moss, wasted in an embarrassing nothing of a role, and Dennis Quaid, a serviceman introduced (no exaggeration) with a cutaway in uniform, sternly saluting at a military funeral — discuss Mary’s father issues, they can’t let us draw the line to her relationship with Rather, or even leave it at the shot of them sleeping next to each other on a plane. Nope, they have to go ahead and state it in dialogue: “They need each other. Fathers need daughters.” And audiences need talking down to, apparently.
But the whole movie’s like that: lifeless, airless, rote, dumb. A network muckety-muck demands, of the “superscript controversy,” “Find me another ‘th’ in the record!”; ten seconds later, as boxes are rolled in, Quaid announces, “We need to find another ‘th,’” as though we all just stumbled back from the bathroom. Topher Grace, as the resident rabble-rouser on the team, gives a Big Speech about how and why the network is running from the story — but it comes out of nowhere, and is delivered to basically no one, dramatically inert and laughably on-the-nose. When Mapes is brought in for questioning by an internal review board, her attorney warns her, “don’t fight,” roughly 17 times, just in case we don’t pick up the first 16 times that she’ll end up fighting at the last minute.
It’s not all a wash; Redford puts across the gravitas of Rather, if not his complexity, and Blanchett has moments where she’s credible, even when the words coming out of her mouth aren’t. There are good scenes here and there, particularly after the shit hits the fan (a tense scene of Rather interviewing their source as a network bigwig is literally writing his questions is a highlight; Mapes pleading with her father to stop talking to the media taps into some genuine emotion), and a juicy visual or two (Mapes pouring a big glass of wine as Bush thanks the White House Press Corps after his re-election).
But the film is ultimately sunk by its simplemindedness — not just in the way it presents the story to its audience, but in the way Vanderbilt seems to distill and reduce the story himself. Part of what made “Rathergate” so compelling was its complexities. There was certainly a story there, but the team’s rush to make an arbitrarily chosen airdate made them sloppy, continuing to investigate the story long after it had aired, putting out fires and playing defense rather than pursuing legitimate concerns raised during the collapsed investigation. Vanderbilt’s script (adapted, tellingly, from Mapes’ memoir) mostly acknowledges those errors, but asks us to ignore them in order to pivot the picture into an us-vs.-them configuration for the third act.
And that’s where Truth will suffer most in comparison to Spotlight, where the team investigating sexual abuse in the Catholic Church for the Boston Globe discovers their own paper could’ve broken the story earlier, had tips and warnings been pursued and heeded. In that film, journalists discover they were part of the problem they were investigating. Such nuance is far from the grasp of a feeble-minded picture like Truth, which jettisons the legitimate questions at this scandal’s center for slow-motion montages of people getting fired and The Legendary Dan Rather getting a standing ovation after his final sign-off. It’s a nice visual that doesn’t fit the story one bit, and is thus an appropriate closing image for a film as shallow and superficial as this one.
Truth is out Friday in limited release.